Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album is a classic. Released over 40 years ago, its acoustic guitar-led folk poems received critical acclaim right from the start. It took a while for the public to catch on, though, partly because the record company did little to promote it at the time. It took 33 years for it reach gold album status.
Last autumn Van performed the entire album live, twice, at the Hollywood Bowl. One of those performances was made into a live DVD. Morrison’s now performing that album in tour. I’m just back from seeing him on his first of two nights at the Royal Albert Hall.
It was my first time seeing Morrison. It was just him and his band (although they always numbered at least a dozen). He was introduced and came out in his usual outfit: all black, with a fedora and sunglasses.
The most important question in my mind beforehand was: will his voice be up to snuff? That was answered right away: it is. I was amazed at how strong his voice is, in fact. Loud, deep, powerful, rich. Too rich, maybe. I’d read that Morrison seems to have lost his powers of enunciation over the years, and this seemed to be the case. He effectively sings only in vowels, long and soulful.
Only show I’ve been to where the intermission music was by the performing artist! One song was even a song they did in first half
His first set was a selection of recent songs and hits, including “And It Stoned Me”, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”, “Caravan”, “Make It Real One More Time”, “Troubadours”. In addition to his singing, Morrison showed off his musicianship skills, playing piano, sax, guitar, and harmonica. He didn’t phone it in: he seemed to be taken by the music sometimes, staring heavenwards, busting into scat, banging the mic with his hand, sometimes just standing aside and yelling.
After the intermission the band came back and played the entirety of Astral Weeks. As soon as they did it seemed to me that Morrison opened up, relaxed, and started to give it a little more. His voice became bigger, louder and even clearer. Maybe it’s the cohesiveness of performing a complete album, or maybe it’s just testament to the quality of the album, but it was definitely better.
Many of the songs were given instrumental extensions. All sounded smooth and poetic, and were richly delivered by the man. My favourite from the album, “Cyprus Avenue” was great, but “Sweet Thing” was epic.
They played a couple of songs after running through the album, culminating in good-time party tune “Gloria”.
Van’s a class act, an old-school soul shouter. I’m glad he’s revisiting a classic album that didn’t get the live exposure it deserved four decades ago.
Photo from artolog via Creative Commons license