Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest albums of the rock era. It’s an unlikely choice: the album has more of a jazz than rock feel; it was not much of a commercial success when released in 1968; and its lyrics are dense, allusive, and at times explicitly mystical — qualities that critics would harshly attack in the work of other musicians like Jon Anderson. So what is it that makes this album so special? Well, let’s just say that somehow, against all odds, it just works. The music, as eccentric and loose as it may be, is nevertheless haunting and memorable; the words, despite their esoteric airiness, are filled with vivid images and occasional moments of heartbreaking romantic clarity. And perhaps, part of what makes it so brilliant is how Astral Weeks breaks so many rules and yet fails to fail.
Over the years Van Morrison has recorded many other albums, more than a few of them almost as great as Astral Weeks. The man has an awesome voice, and while the ravages of time has muted some of its power, age has also brought a mellowing to it — almost like a fine Irish whisky. So it is fascinating to hear Morrison, now in his sixties, perform live — for the first time — all eight songs from the original Astral Weeks. The show’s only playing in three cities, L.A., New York and London, so most of us will have to settle for the just-released live album and a forthcoming DVD to enjoy the magic. The L.A. shows — during which the live CD was recorded — took place last November, 40 years to the month after the release of the original disc. The New York shows are tonight and this coming week, and then off to London. If you can, catch the shows (although the tickets are not cheap!).
The live album won’t knock the original off its pedestal, and in some ways disappoints by not taking more risks. But if nothing else, it is a testament to a long and singularly creative career of an authentic rock and roll genius. Astral Weeks wasn’t Morrison’s first album and this live recording no doubt will not be his last, but there still is a valedictory feeling about it.
NPR has recently aired two segments on Astral Weeks: a review of the new live album, and an appreciation of the original recording. Both are worth a listen. And if you don’t own these albums (especially the original), it’s high time you bought yourself copies: click here for the 1968 studio recording, or click here for the 2008 live version.