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Arts and Entertainment

Van Morrison @ Hollywood Bowl 11/8/08

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The latest in a line of major artists to walk away from the music industry without walking away from music, Van Morrison launched his new career as Record Company Head with a two-night recording session at the Bowl. To kick-start his new Listen To The Lion Records, he revived his 1968 album Astral Weeks, bringing back original session guitarist and Mingus sideman Jay Berliner (bassist Richard Davis was also scheduled to appear but a family emergency forced him to pull out). A large number of Angelenos will be forever grateful to him for opening the studio doors.

No one expected a rote replication of the original record, given Morrison’s tendency to twist and re-work his old material, if he plays it at all. His performances are filled with in-the-moment improvisations, with key parts extended and explored, trying to uncover all the possibilities. In this area, he did not disappoint. Astral Weeks is a notoriously trippy and fluid piece of work, 180 degrees from his radio hits and their tight, compact arrangements. The structures and chord changes aren’t particularly complex, but throughout, it feels like a group of people having a single, unified thought, seamlessly melding jazz, folk and soul into a sound that none of his other albums comes near.

It became clear this was a night for taking liberties early on. The band sacrificed some of the recorded work's ethereal foam for an earthier, fleshier feel, the drums more prominent, the upright bass providing a firm cushion for Morrison's out-there vocalizations. The title track started out with a smooth, even pace like its recorded version, but soon developed a surging momentum. The Way Young Lovers Do had an irresistible swing that pulled the crowd in like an undertow, building into a stuttering, intense Cyprus Avenue before receding into the graceful Ballerina. They shuffled the song order and switched some of the instrumental voicings, with horns and strings swelling up in unexpected places. And always, it was Morrison's voice setting the pace, pulling the band back then shoving it forward, like a great conductor. Earlier in the week he'd told the LA Weekly's Scott Foundas that he was always trying to find a band that could follow him and his instincts anywhere, at a moment's notice, and with this one, he might have found it.

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He'd sounded more than fine during the opening segment, a rare, all-retro set made up mostly of his early solo material. He surprised with amped-up and thoroughly garage-worthy renditions of the Them nuggets Here Comes The Night and Gloria. There were bits where you wondered if his heart was really in it for Caravan and Brown-Eyed Girl (the chorus of the former changed its tune to "Turn down your radio"), though the audience's visible delight at hearing them carried them over their weak spots. But other numbers, like And The Healing Has Begun and Heavy Connection, could have been written last week for all the juice left in them. Still, the Astral set was something else completely. It's not often that the big payoff of a show this huge comes long after all the famous hit songs have already been played, but there it was.

As the head of a fledgling record company, Morrison's got one hell of a first release on his hands. We can only hope his liberation from corporate bosses inspires new work as forceful and deeply felt.

Set List
First set:
Wavelength
Saint Dominic's Preview
Caravan
Heavy Connection
Here Comes the Night
And the Healing Has Begun
Summertime in England
Brown-Eyed Girl
Gloria

Second set / Astral Weeks complete:
Beside You
Slim Slow Slider
Sweet Thing
The Way Young Lovers Do
Cyprus Avenue
Ballerina
Madame George

Encore
Listen To The Lion

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Photo by Kevin Scanlon, c.2008, Listen To The Lion Records, used with permission.