By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
When it was announced that Van Morrison would close out the Hollywood Bowl’s fall season with two nights of concerts at which he would perform his seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks from cover to cover, some longtime Morrison fans might have wondered if the mercurial Irish singer-songwriter was taking the piss out of them. It was barely a decade ago, when, in a storied appearance at New York’s intimate Supper Club venue, Morrison had virulently berated the audience for demanding material from his ’60s and ’70s repertoire (which he dubbed “ancient history”) after he opened the floor to requests. And as anyone who has seen Morrison live in the past decade can attest, the set list, while almost never the same twice, consists predominately of songs from Morrison’s two or three most recent albums, with a few token crowd-pleasers (“Moondance” and the rousing R&B anthem “Gloria,” from Morrison’s days fronting the Irish band Them) sprinkled in for good measure. Even the much-loved sing-along ditty “Brown Eyed Girl” returned to regular rotation earlier this decade following a long hiatus, if only to satisfy the fair-weather Morrison fans who had taken to loudly requesting it an nearly every concert. Yet, in the nearly two dozen times I’ve seen Morrison play live since his 1997 triple-header with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the Astral Weeks material has rarely been given an airing.
Indeed, the only thing seemingly more certain than his ironclad resistance to doing any sort of “greatest hits” show or “nostalgia tour” is the fact that, where Morrison is concerned, you can never predict what he’ll do next — from one measure to the next, one song to the next, one album to the next. Pay close attention during one of his concerts — and there is little reason to suspect the atmosphere is much different in the recording studio — and you can frequently catch sight of Morrison’s band members scurrying to keep apace with their leader as he calls out sudden tempo changes, uses hand gestures to take a swelling crescendo down to a muted whisper and back again, and routinely throws curve balls into the set list. So it comes as no real surprise to hear that Morrison doesn’t view his two upcoming Bowl shows as an exhumation of the past at all but rather as something entirely new.
“I’ve never done any live gigs with those people,” says Morrison, who will perform the Astral Weeks song cycle with the support of two key collaborators from the original recordings: veteran Charles Mingus guitarist Jay Berliner and legendary bass player Richard Davis, now 78. Like many of the Astral Weeks session musicians (including the late drummer Connie Kaye), Berliner and Davis were recruited by Morrison and album producer Lewis Merenstein because of their background in jazz. “It was recorded like a jazz session, which is the way I like to do it,” Morrison recalls. “There was a lot of work put into the songs previously, when I rehearsed them, and I had done some of them live with a trio. So, the basic arrangements I had worked out then, and the rest was added to that. But the whole thing was not just that; it was more the spontaneity of what was going on [in the studio], and the reading of the material by the other people.”
But at the time, Morrison adds, there was no money to organize a proper tour — and so, despite its enduring critical acclaim (it frequently places near the top in critic and reader surveys of the greatest all-time albums: Lester Bangs famously cited it as his favorite record), Astral Weeks remains, along with 1974’s masterful, defiantly uncommercial Veedon Fleece, one of Morrison’s least-performed albums. “It’s never really been done live, and that’s kind of what my music is all about,” he says. “I just wanted to check it out for myself and re-explore it.”
The fact that I’m talking to Morrison, face to face, is nearly as rare a happening as the upcoming concerts, the singer having famously spent much of his career dodging — and, occasionally, confronting head-on — the media. During an interview for Rolling Stone in the early ’90s, he allegedly walked out of a Boston restaurant midway through, leaving the reporter to tail him down the street, while in recent songs like “New Biography” and “Too Many Myths,” Morrison has been harshly critical of the various Web sites and unauthorized pseudo-biographies that have peddled purportedly authoritative accounts of his life and work. Such incidents, coupled with his recalcitrant onstage demeanor, have earned Morrison a reputation for being “difficult,” when in fact they may merely be the telltale signs of a performer who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, pay lip service to sycophants, or buy into the conventional wisdom that someone who suffers the pain of artistic creation is obliged to be “nice” when discussing his craft.