Sunday, March 1, 2009

Music Review: Van Morrison and Astral Weeks; You Can Go Hom e Again

by Eric Green

Forty years ago, a very young Irish singer wrote and sang his songs on a new record album, it was vinyl, then, and it was called "Astral Weeks."

The singer and composer was and is Van Morrison.

The album didn't make much of a splash in the rock and roll world. His most famous song, "Brown Eyed Girl," was released as a single in 1967, started his rise. In 1968 Astral Weeks was produced with little recognition. The "Moondance" album came out in 1969 and that started his meteoric rise. Nowadays, Morrison refers to "Brown Eyed Girl, as a throw away; meaning, he is not very proud of their creativity.

But, for years, Van Morrison fans, and there are a growing intergenerational millions of such fans, still call "Astral Weeks" his very best album. He doesn't disagree with that assessment.

When he refers to that album he makes it clear that he was broke and looking for some recognition. And, the band members were not of his choosing, but players who were available.

In 1971 he released "Tupelo Honey" and in 1972 "Saint Dominic Preview."

In 1973, Morrison girl friend was tying of tuberculosis and he created the great album, "T.B. Sheets." In a rare event, Morrison performed "T.B. Sheets" at his Astral Weeks Live concert.

Forty Years Later

Now, after a career of singing Irish Folk songs with the Chieftains in 1988; Jazz with British jazz musician George Fame on an album of his work in 1995 and, the "Songs of Mose Allison," in 1996.

In 1995 Morrison released, "Days Like This" with his daughter, Shana, singing on the album.

In the year 2000 Morrison created an interesting "Folk " album with Belfast musicians in "The Skiffle Sessions," and in the same year released a duet album with Jerry Lee Lewis' daughter called, ""You Win Again." In 2006, Morrison released a very creative country and western album called, "Pay the Devil."

Morrison is clearly a creative artist always looking for a new way to create his music. He himself says that he gets tired with the present and is looking for new things to do.

By doing a complete reversal of this looking for something new, and returning to his beginning, Morrison shows he really is the flexible person he wants to remain being.

Starting at the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, "Astral Weeks Live" was started in late 2008; and, now, he performed the historical album at the Madison Square Garden Performance Space [still called Wa-Mu] and will be doing it again at the newly renovated Beacon Theatre. [PS The Beacon seats are NOT sold out, maybe a testament to the economic crisis….the seats are very expensive.] He then travels to London for a performance.

The Performance

At the Garden, Morrison warmed up the sold out performance with some of his major hits, including "Gloria." In that song, a song he rarely sings, he even encouraged, as much as he ever encourages audience reaction, to sing along.

He performed "T.B. Sheets" for the first time in anyone's memory.

He then, in this warm up session, had a change pace, as he called it, with a great rendition of "St. James Infirmary," an appropriate song for this Mardi Gras time period.

In this performance and continuing in the second half of the evening, Astral Weeks, Morrison assembly a great orchestra including, violin, and two cellos; another fiddle and a couple of guitar players. Piano player. And a great sax player who played the soprano, baritone, tenor sax. There were also, three back up singers. For some solo artists this size of orchestra might overwhelm, but not for Morrison.

This ensemble was scaled backed up when Morrison performed the Astral Weeks segment. He did keep the violins, cellos and horns and saxes.

Morrison's voice is extremely strong and all consuming. The acoustics of the Garden were perfect.

Astral Weeks

He started the main segment with "Astral Weeks/I Believe I've Transcended" which was only appropriate. It was performed almost flawlessly. The audience followed every word. There was totally silence with every word and musical chord.

This was following two other hit songs from that album: "Cyprus Avenue" and "Madam George." [He had some problems with his guitar on the "Cypus Avenue" song.]

It is a great and somewhat risky feat for an artist to take an album done in 1968 with unknown artists that yielded such a historic success, a cult following; and, with musicians picked for just that session, and do it again. But, the did. Nothing seems to threaten Morrison in the world he lives in.

Listing to the 1968 version along side the 2009 version and you come away satisfaction for both creations.

In a recent interview, Morrison said in response to why it took so long to do what he is going with this tour, he said that he didn't even own the record, which would have made such a reincarnation possible earlier.

Classifying Morris Music

In an interview recently the questioner, Scott Foundas, an English music critic, asked the following question:

"SF: I have all your records on CDs, but because I was traveling recently, I did load
them all into my computer, which I'm a real novice with; it's not my bag at all. But I
thought it was curious that when they came up in the iTunes player, every one was
classified as something different. One album would be called "pop," one would
be called "rock," one would be called "world." Common One for some
reason was called "world." The computer doesn't seem to know what to call your

VM: I'd call it soul."

On the other hand, in the same interview, when Foundas quizzed Morrison in regard to the Astral Weeks live shows he asked about the music backgrounds of the orchestra player:

"SF: A lot of these musicians had a background in jazz:
VM: Which was more appealing, because that's the way I was singing the songs. It was
Jazz, as opposed to rock."

So his music is soul and jazz. A great combination.

But, I am sure had the critic asked him about his music slot after working with the Chieftains, he may have included those that genre.

You get the distinct impression that Morrison, while perfectly comfortable with being interviewed; he likes to give often-contradictory responses.

Any review of the Astral Weeks Live Show, [These are the artists listed in the CD and probably the same ones present at the Garden.] must include the his jazz-based orchestra. Starting Morrison who plays piano, guitars, sax, and harmonica; Jay Berliner on lead guitar; Richie Buckley on Sax; David Hayes on acoustic bass; Robbie Ruggerio; with Nancy Ellis, Terry Adams and Michael Graham on the violins and cellos.

Jay Berliner, a Brooklyn born guitarist, is the only musician, beside Morrison himself that performed on the original album in 1968 and also on the 2009 release. He also performed in the live sets.

For this performance, Roger Kellaway is the orchestra leader and pianist. Sixty Nine year old Kellaway has music history. Morrison is in his 63 year, August 31st is his birthdate.

But, the artist who clearly as center stage and sang and played closest to Morris is the Irish saxophonist, Richie Buckley. Here is some information about Buckley from his "My Space" web site: [worth the read]

"With his unique style and virtuoso technique, Richie Buckley, a self-taught saxophone player, is internationally recognized as one of Ireland's leading jazz performers. He has been described as "extraordinary" (Irish Times, 2001), "something of a genius…[with] a world reputation amongst saxophonists" (Irish Times, 1999) and a musician whose "playing manages to be simultaneously passionate and gentle, romantic and elegiac." (Sunday Independent, 2001) Musicians with whom he has collaborated include Van Morrison, Freddie Hubbard, Dave McKenna, Harry Allen, Lew Soloff, Guy Barker, Jiggs Wigham, Bob Dylan, Georgie Fame, Jon Hendricks, Carlos Santana, Barry Manilow, and Elvis Costello. Recording credits include Van Morrison, James Williams, Barry Manilow, Riverdance, Lord of the Dance and Elmer Bernstein. He has also recorded and performed with major Irish artists including The Cranberries, Christy Moore, Sharon Shannon, Sinead O'Connor, Paul Brady and Bill Whelan. His critically acclaimed album 'Your Love is Here', featuring his own compositions and guest artists Lew Soloff and the Robin Aspland Trio, was recorded in September 2000. Richie has scored three documentary films – 'Luke' (Luke Kelly, directed by Sinead O'Brien), 'Friel' (Brian Friel), 'Lee Marvin' (directed by John Boorman) and the film 'The General' (directed by John Boorman)."

It is unsung great musicians who often make things possible. Morrison is clearly able to gather the best and he certainly did this time.

The original album was not a long one: a little over 45 minutes. The live version is also not must longer. The actual performance at the Garden was about an hour. It was the second half of the show.

Final Thoughts: Cut-throat Music Business

The British critic Foundas asked Morrison about the music business and Morrison unloaded is feelings on that.

"It's not so much about the business. It's about the kind of people that the business
and fame sometimes attract. It's more about that. Because the business is just business,
and at the end of the day it is just cut-throat. These people are not my friends. I don't
know them. We don't hang out. I mean, it's not like the old days when you had guys who
were called A&R men and they had actual producers at record companies; there were more people that actually did know something about music. Now it's pretty clear-cut. You can bet 99.5% of the record business knows nothing about music. You can bet on that now, where you couldn't 30 years ago, because there were more people who did know music in the record business, right? It basically comes down to maths. So now, if you're doing what I do, you need to carry a calculator with you, because it all just comes down to maths, as far as dealing with record companies. That's what it is, because that's all it is for them, so that's what it's got to be for you. It's certainly not what it used to be. The beginning of the end was when a lot of those guys sold out, like Atlantic Records. That was the beginning of the end. It's now the end. We've probably gone past the end of the actual record business as it was, or what it was supposed to be. We've probably gone
beyond that. We're on the other side of that now. It's minus."

Maybe the international financial crisis will root out the anti-music executives from the music industry and a new rebirth can take place; sort of a "born again" period that Morrison wrote about in Astral Weeks.