By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The wonderfulness of “Astral Weeks”

I was excited about the new live version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” until I saw this video of him mumbling through “Sweet Thing” at the Hollywood Bowl. The huge band he’s assembled is terrific. Morrison, not so much. Nor does this New York Times review hold out much hope.

Though I’m not a big Morrison fan and have never seen him live, I love “Astral Weeks.” As I suspect is the case with many people, I came to it well into adulthood — it was never on the radio, either then or now, and Morrison’s numerous top-40 hits didn’t appeal to me all that much. When I finally decided to find out why critics had been raving about it for all those years, I was mesmerized.

Last Friday I listened to it straight through while driving home, the first time I’d done that in a while. What a strange, wonderful piece of work. Morrison is at his peak, both in his singing and his writing. Is it possible that he was just 23 when he recorded it? I’d listen to it just for Richard Davis’ otherworldly bass-playing. Pressed to name a favorite song (not that these are really songs), I’d probably say “Cypress Avenue.” But that’s subject to change.

Trouble is, Morrison has had a reputation for years — maybe decades? — of indifference when it comes to performing live. Don Imus scored a rare interview with Morrison last week, but didn’t succeed in drawing him out of his shell. Far better is this NPR piece, broadcast on Saturday, on the significance of “Astral Weeks.”

Bob Dylan is often lumped with Morrison in delivering uninspired, even belligerently awful live performances. But when Dylan’s engaged, he is as compelling as he’s ever been. If you don’t believe me, check out this riveting video of Bob and the boys performing the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (Steve Greenlee will have to take my word for it, I guess.)

Does Morrison ever rise to such heights anymore? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that if you don’t have “Astral Weeks” in your collection, you should rectify that as quickly as possible. You will be entranced and amazed.

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  1. $!#

    Dan, really couldn’t agree with you more here. It’s a defining piece of work — I grew up listening to my parents play it, and have come to appreciate it on my own terms as well.

  2. Chris Rich

    It was written in Cambridge on Green Street in a dumpy first floor apartment with no phone while he was nearly broke with a wife and kid in tow.Cambridge is the odd ghost presence in the thing and it is more like a formally perfect suite.

  3. DanH

    I’ve seen Van and Dylan once each live, and I’m batting 0 for 2.I am a huge Van fan, but will never ever again pay to see him mumble, whine about the lights and order the audience to be quiet instead of performing the way he obviously can, given the level of talent he displays on tape/record/CD.Dylan played at the New Orleans Jazz Fest year before last and he was indeed “belligerently” bad – the only performer out of 7 days of 11 am – 7 pm music who was late to go on and then “sang” as if he was gargling Romilar to wash down a mouthful of dull razor blades. Luckily his band was top shelf.-dan

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Dan: I’ve seen Dylan three times (1986, ’89, and ’06), and I’m three for three, with the most recent being by far the best. Here’s the review I wrote at the time.

  5. Tunder

    Dan,Was one of those 80’s shows at Endicott College? I’m a fellow North Shorer and was stunned to see his name listed on a college marquee one day. Went to the show and he was fantastic. Saw Van at the Orpheum years ago and although absolutely no banter to the audience, played a great show. Hit or miss…

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Tunder: I saw Dylan in ’86 at Great Woods with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Just a straight-ahead greatest-hits show, but Dylan took it seriously and sent everyone home happy.In ’89 it was at the Orpheum, with a small band led by G.E. Smith. He was touring in support of “Oh Mercy.” His singing was pretty awful, but he was fully engaged and played some impressive lead guitar, believe it or not.

  7. The Arranger

    Nine albums with Richard Davis on bass that will give you an appreciation of this man’s immense talent:Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch, At the Five SpotJoe Henderson – In ‘n’ OutAndrew Hill – Point of Departure, Black FireThad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra – Consummation, Central Park NorthDizzy Gillespie – Live at the Village VanguardKenny Dorham – Trompeta ToccataRoland Kirk – Rip, Rig and PanicBooker Ervin – The Freedom BookHe’s played with everybody, from Earl Hines to Springsteen to Streisand as well.

  8. John Doherty

    Tunder, I'm a Beverly resident, and was also at the Endicott show, around Halloween in 93. Dylan almost didn't go on that night, as the temperature in the tent was lower than specified (I suspect an extra bag of cash solved the contractual problem). When he did, I agree, he was ON in a big way. Footnote: opener was Rockport native Paula Cole– then unknown, known widely & briefly since, and now pretty much reduced to trivia question status.

  9. Tunder

    John,So much for my thinking that it was in the 80’s. Yeesch!Anyway, I remember the tent and the weather. And further coincidence, I know Paula Cole (I missed her opening act that night) and will be seeing her tomorrow night at a meeting. (Shameless name dropping!)She still performs occasionally but is a mommy and stays closer to home.

  10. Tunder

    Side note about Paula Cole – I first learned about her through her vocal work with Peter Gabriel on his Secret World Tour cd/dvd. Not crazy about her solo work but the stuff she did on that tour was fantastic.

  11. Vox

    Why do you have to have a favorite song from the Astral Weeks? That's like trying to identify a favorite chapter from Great Expectations.My wife and I saw Morrison (finally!) last year at the Wang Center. We were way up in the balcony, but he was in good voice that night and we both enjoyed the show. And yes, while he can be difficult onstage, he can also be transcendant. Check out his performance in The Last Waltz, or his version of Summertime in England from a live performance recorded in NYC in the mid-late 90s. He was backed by Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames. Exceptional.

  12. O-FISH-L

    For the night owls in the Nation, Van Morrison is scheduled to appear on Jimmy Fallon’s debut late show (in the old Conan O’Brien slot) tonight at 12:35 am on ch.7.My favorite by Van is “Cleaning Windows”. It accompanied me on both good days and bad on the ocean. I might have to dig through my boat stuff to find the cassette, then to find a cassette player!

  13. O-FISH-L

    I agree with look. Van Morrison wasn’t half bad on the Jimmy Fallon debut show. He did a coherent version of “Sweet Thing.” Not quite album quality, but enjoyable nonetheless. What I found interesting was that Robert DeNiro seemed to really appreciate that he was in the company of a legend, twice embracing VM during the closing credits. Fellow singer, but seemingly unaware, was Fallon’s second guest singer Justin Timberlake, who appeared to give VM a weak handshake and then vaulted up into the studio audience, as if he was the main event. I think some of the appeal of Van Morrison is that he is underappreciated.

  14. Francis

    DanIf you haven’t yet, you need to check out “Backstage with Bob Dylan” on Seth MacFarlane’s YouTube channel:

  15. joel

    Hey Dan & everybody – Astral Weeks is on sale – $5.99 on Amazon mp3 if you buy the whole album!

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