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Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Listen to the Lion/EMI)

23 May 2009

Certainly the 40th anniversary of Astral Weeks deserved to be celebrated, but conceptually, it was a bit odd to present one of the most intimate albums in rock history at the Hollywood Bowl, capacity 17,376. But what could’ve been a disaster proved a triumph.

It was no Xeroxed note-for-note recreation, and not just because original bassist Richard Davis’s participation didn’t work out, though original guitarist Jay Berliner’s present and sterling. But David Hayes easily slid into Davis’s slot (which is real double bass, not bass guitar, BTW), having been the bassist on 15 Morrison albums dating back to 1973. (That resume includes arguably the greatest rock concert album, It’s Too Late to Stop Now, which also sported cellist Terry Adams, who anchored the unusual string quartet – violin, violin/viola, and two cellos – at the Bowl as well. And, for that matter, Too Late guitarist John Platania showed up for the Bowl encores.)

Van the Man also switched the song order around, extended some songs so much that they now have secondary titles appended to them, changed the titular character of “Madame George” to Madame Joy, hired jazz pianist Roger Kellaway to further class up the gig, and turned the material from a dark, brooding downer (though a glorious one, don’t misunderstand me) into an upbeat, exultant celebration.

It won’t replace the original Astral Weeks; nothing could (here’s my anniversary piece). But it’s a thorough valid experience in itself, a pleasure from beginning to end, and absolutely thrilling with no reservations. And Van’s in great voice, which was in doubt a few years ago when he sometimes seemed short-breathed.

The aforementioned encores are hit (mystical “Listen to the Lion”) and miss (his uncredited co-vocalist on “Common One” ain’t up to the challenge of keeping up with Van), and a “Gloria” mentioned in the credits is nowhere to be heard, alas, but the glory of the main attraction is undimmed.