Van Morrison, Royal Albert Hall, London
Stellar classic is born again
Wednesday 22 April 2009
It doesn't matter to me in the slightest," was Van Morrison's 2005 dismissal of Astral Weeks, among the best albums of his and most people's careers. He claimed to be too busy moving forward, when in fact he was huddling behind his most stolid instincts, barking out ordinary R&B at gigs as if in a supper-club version of his old band, Them. Then last year, at the Hollywood Bowl, he played Astral Weeks through on its 40th anniversary. The resulting live album is his best record since 1990's Enlightenment. The Albert Hall version is better still. With a 15-piece jazz-soul big band behind him and unimpeachable songs, old aspirations are remembered and met.
Though Morrison's reputation rests on questing out into wordless realms, his uniqueness as a rock writer is his desire for silence and stillness, the cessation of change. For tonight's first half of career-spanning songs, he finds his feet with the moment in "Caravan" when he laughingly interjects: "Turn up this radio/ Maybe we can actually hear this song!" During "All in the Game", he peers up as if to see his scattergun scat-notes rattling off the ceiling, then leans on his mic-stand as if it's a bar. "Common One", a song with both the "ancient highway" and "Westbourne Grove bus stop" on its route, finishes this set. With saxophonist Richie Buckley as his vocal echo, Morrison repeatedly bows down and snaps straight to rhythms he seems to hear in his head as they happen, which pour out through his band's wide, receptive wavelengths. He walks off with imperial, bulldog confidence.
He steps into Astral Weeks on his return with the title song. Morrison hunches over his acoustic guitar, back turned, as a band he leads with impatient swats of his hand fall in around him, the volume sinking into the spot where he's bent, till I hunch in to hear, and every hushed sound resonates.
Concerns with death, place, time and memory are what make Astral Weeks a pensively beautiful, strung-out mood-piece. Morrison's re-ordering of an album which originally built to its deepest, strongest songs means "Slim Slow Slider", with its revelation that "I know you're dying", comes early. But such lingering sickness occurs tonight in the context of Morrison's own growing potency. A pure, high bellow is his default mode, with more sensuous control than recently, and a violent happiness that expresses itself too in his guitar's chopping strum. "The Way Young Lovers Do" is suitably excited and brief. When "Ballerina" mentions "the left side of your head", he giddily slaps his own. Music he begrudged playing a year ago now runs like electricity in his veins.
Finally "Gloria" snaps us further back to 1964, and Them. Tony Fitzgibbon's fiddle shivers with the sexual suspense that attracted Patti Smith to the song. The overweight, 63-year-old Morrison is a convincing, leering priapic force in its midst. He struts off still singing, full potency restored. If new music results, Morrison will really be reborn.
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