Archive for the ‘Hollywood Bowl’ Category

Van Morrison’s Astral Weekend at Hollywood Bowl

November 17, 2008
Thanks to Andrew Robertson in Adelaide

If ever I was going to fly to the other side of the world for a weekend to see a concert – make that two concerts – November 7th and 8th at Hollywood Bowl was the time to do it.

In a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Van Morrison played Astral Weeks – arguably the greatest album in contemporary music – live both nights to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release in 1968.

Set lists:

Friday 7th November

Wavelength
Saint Dominic’s Preview
And The Healing Has Begun
It’s All In The Game >> You Know What They’re Writing About
Troubadours
Angeliou
Moondance
Brown Eyed Girl
Gloria

Astral Weeks
Beside You
Slime Slow Slider
Sweet Thing
The Way That Young Lovers Do
Cyprus Avenue
Ballerina
Madame George

Listen To The Lion

Saturday 8th November

Wavelength
Saint Dominic’s Preview
Caravan
It’s All In The Game >> You Know What They’re Writing About
Here Comes The Night
And The Healing Has Begun
Summertime In England
Brown Eyed Girl
Gloria

Astral Weeks
Beside You
Slime Slow Slider
Sweet Thing
The Way That Young Lovers Do
Cyprus Avenue
Ballerina
Madame George

Listen To The Lion

When the first night started with Wavelength, Saint Dominic’s Preview and And The Healing Has Begun, I knew we were in for a totally magical experience. You would hardly get a better encore than that, let alone an opening sequence. I have to admit to tears in Healing, I was simply taken!

My own assessment was confirmed by this online review of the Friday night concert in the LA Weekly website on Saturday: “Sell the rest of your portfolio. Forgo fancy dinners for the rest of November. Break your lame date and call your soul mate. Do what you have to do, I swear, to get a ticket to tonight’s Van Morrison show at the Hollywood Bowl. If you at all have ever been moved by a Morrison song, if you’ve wondered whether age has worn his voice, tore away at his heart or passion, you should make a pilgrimage.”

It is seriously impossible to describe these concerts – as an Aussie, I’ve only seen Van live a handful of times, but the Van faithful from all over the world who were there, many of whom had seen him countless times, all agreed that this was the high water mark.

For me, this weekend was about Van’s musical legacy. There have been some people questioning why he would be doing Astral Weeks again and how it might be about money, and getting some rights back from Warner Brothers, and so on. But I don’t think so – if he had wanted to make money, I’m not sure that Astral Weeks was the most astute business decision – more likely Van Morrison “At the Movies” live at Hollywood Bowl would have been more popular.

In an emailed interview with Van, published in the Los Angeles Times, he made one comment that really struck me: “But I prefer writing and crafting the spiritual-leaning songs the most.” And for most of us Vanatics, those are the songs that resonate – but those are the songs that have been (mostly) absent from the last few albums.

So this “Astral Weekend” was about Van reclaiming some of what made him Van Morrison – I think it was a very personal journey for him. But one that he couldn’t help sharing, even though sharing doesn’t (apparently) come easily to him.

Others have said they were worried that he couldn’t do justice to Astral Weeks now after all these years. But he did – it wasn’t a repeat version, but it was a very faithful re-creation, true to the original, but informed by the 40 years in between. Nobody complained about the It’s Too Late To Stop Now version of Listen to the Lion starting with a piano intro, rather than guitar as on the original studio version, so why would there be a problem with Van changing the instrumentation and arrangements in the live versions of the Astral Weeks songs – as long as they were true to the spirit of the originals. Which they were!

To the concerts…

Anyone familiar with Van’s canon will recognise those set lists as extraordinary. To get All In the Game, Troubadours and Angeliou was completely beyond my wildest imaginings – it meant we got the whole of Side 2 of Into The Music, plus Troubadours, in addition to the whole of Astral Weeks!

Angeliou was exceptional, especially when he told the story that had no words – as only Van can, with those vocal sounds that come from who knows where (did you dig that sound?).

Closing out the first half with Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria didn’t even seem to disappoint those who’ve heard them 100 times before, I think because the arrangements were so good. Moondance was so crisp and clean, and Van’s sax playing was great. Gloria was a stunner, morphing into Who Do You Love, and having a really bluesy grunt to it. And BEG was, well, just the perfect pop song delivered perfectly.

Then the second half started, Astral Weeks – this was very hard to believe, that there we were, and it was happening. It was 1972 when I first heard Astral Weeks, it blew me away then, it has continued to blow me away ever since, and it blew me away on Friday night.

I think the Friday night highlight was an astonishing Slim Slow Slider in which Van was attacking his acoustic guitar, again and again and again and again, with wild bursts of the most frenetic strumming you’ve ever seen, and singing BOTH that he was breaking down AND that he mustn’t break down.

If proof was still needed that this was about the music, Slim Slow Slider was it – if it was just a money-making exercise, he didn’t have to drive himself into such a frenzied state. He was, at once, breaking down and not breaking down, casting such an emotional spell you couldn’t help but be drawn into it. But like Astral Weeks (the album) has always done, it reveals the depths of pain while also opening the door to redemption. Beside You the same. Ballerina the same. Not so Astral Weeks itself (the song), which I’ve always found to be full of inspiration and hope – to be born again, to be born again.

Running Sweet Thing and Young Lovers in sequence seemed just right, and brought joy back to the stage after the depths of Beside You and Slim Slow Slider (not that listening to those two wasn’t a joyous experience, of course).

Then running Cyprus Avenue, Ballerina and Madame George together made for another inspired sequence and closed out the album, I mean concert, beautifully. Only to be followed by Listen to the Lion, which I had hoped would close out the first half because I really didn’t expect an encore after Astral Weeks (an encore after Madame George?!!). The tears were back in Lion – after all, it is my funeral song, and it is the one, out of all of his songs, that I so wanted him to play! And he did.

On Saturday night, after opening with Wavelength again, things went to a whole new level with an inspired Saint Dominic’s Preview – lines like “Warner Brothers have paid out for the wine” and “when you’re in the phoney state you’re in” and “snipers on the rooftops” suggested that there was fire burning in that belly tonight!

I didn’t expect Caravan – and while he wasn’t kicking, the arm thrusts were straight out of The Last Waltz and the band suddenly became the Caledonia Soul Orchestra. And what was Van doing, BOTH turning up AND turning down that radio. He was just going for it – tonight was his night, no doubt.

Then Game took off – if Saint Dominic was taken to another level, Game went to another galaxy, and it just went on and on, and took us all with it. Tinges of disappointment that we weren’t going to get Healing again – but we did, and again, I had shivers up and down my spine when I heard those first few guitar chords. Healing was very, very special for me, both nights.

Here Comes The Night was a personal treat – as a kid I used to take a transistor radio to bed, under the covers so my parents couldn’t hear, and Here Comes The Night and Mystic Eyes, along with Gloria, began my lifetime relationship with Van (even if I didn’t know it at the time).

But was Summertime in England the biggest surprise of all? It was agreed by everyone I spoke to at the “Van fan” gatherings that there would NOT be a SIE at these shows – even though it would have been first choice for many. Again, not a song that Van would have chosen if he was being guided by commercial interests. But what a surprising version – it started at the end and even though I kept thinking he’ll come back to the beginning with a very soft, taken right down “would you meet me in the country in the summertime in England…” it didn’t happen. Nevertheless, a magical highlight and perfect as it was.

Astral Weeks (the album, not just the song) on Saturday night also, in my opinion, went to another level. I was trying to describe to someone after the show what the difference was – and even though I couldn’t really find the right words to explain it, it seemed to me that he differentiated the songs more clearly. On Friday night, there was a bit of a sameness about his vocal delivery (excluding the extraordinary bits, scatting, etc) whereas on Saturday night each song took on its own personality. For example, Beside You was delivered more like on the album, much starker vocal delivery, almost harsh, but in a way that befits the song.

The highlight (if it’s possible to pick one) on Saturday night was Ballerina – after which he got a standing ovation from a crowd that knew Madame George and (hopefully) Listen to the Lion was still to come.

Speaking of standing ovations, on Friday night the crowd just clapped and cheered for what seemed like 10 minutes before the house lights came up. Yes we wanted more, but it was more than that – it was a genuinely enthusiastic acknowledgment of what we had witnessed. And this included people in the audience who were not Vanatics. I was really hoping that Van hadn’t left straight after the show because I thought it would have done wonders for his soul to have heard such heartfelt appreciation.

On Saturday night, my tears happened in Madame George – not sure if it was just the occasion, or whether it was the song, but certainly Madame George on Saturday night was as good as it gets. On a weekend that was better than it ever gets.