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“I need to know thathe’s going to do the three-minute-and-50-second version and not some eight-minute version,” says the Tonight Show talent booker moments after Van Morrison storms off the stage during the run-through for last Wednesday afternoon’s taping. The booker — a stern-looking woman in her 40s with curly, dark hair and thigh-high riding boots — is talking to J.R. Rich, a soft-spoken vice president of publicity for Morrison’s distributor, EMI Music, who calmly assures her that this is the first time anything like this has happened on Morrison’s Astral Weeks Live concert tour, which kicked off at the Hollywood Bowl last November and returned to Los Angeles for a three-night stand at the Orpheum last weekend. Along the way, there have been incident-free television appearances by the normally press-shy singer-songwriter on Regis, Jimmy Fallon and CBS Sunday Morning.
Moments earlier, everything seemed to be going smoothly at The Tonight Show, too, as Morrison led his band in a rendition of “Slim Slow Slider,” a song that clocked in at a mere 3:18 on the 1968 Astral Weeks studio recording, but which has been regularly “stretched out” (Morrison’s preferred term for his stream-of-consciousness improvisations) to three times that length during the Astral Weeks Livesets, making it the most radically transformed of the album’s eight tracks. On the surprisingly small Tonight Show stage, Morrison, outfitted in signature Stetson and shades, straps on the white acoustic guitar he has favored during this tour and starts to play, pausing to give a few shorthand directions to the band (“Something missing, man,” “Too much”). But in an effort to conserve his voice, strained by the previous week’s concerts in Berkeley, Morrison doesn’t sing the song full-out, instead whispering a few key lyrics here and there just to keep everyone on track. When he finishes, the show’s floor director says, “I think you should do that the way you’re gonna do it on the show.” To which Morrison replies, “It’s not a song you can rehearse like that,” and then bolts for his upstairs dressing room, where he will remain until the taping.
It’s almost a scene straight out of Morrison’s song “Showbusiness” — one of many he has written about the perils of fame and the music industry — which begins by describing “the man on the TV with the phony smile” and features a chorus in which the subject is asked to “do it just like the last one.” However, there’s nothing phony about Morrison, who rarely smiles at all — certainly never when he doesn’t mean to — and seems driven by a congenital inability to repeat himself. When he steps in front of a crowd, whether the teeming thousands of the Hollywood Bowl or the peaceful few hundred in NBC Studio 3, he seeks to transcend the apparent boundaries of any given song; to achieve a total freedom of form; to take himself, his band and the audience on a journey whose destination is anything but known.
“You get to the next level, where it’s spontaneous, and you get to the level of being, the being level, like being here and now, whatever you want to call it,” Morrison tells me later in his dressing room, where he’s cooling his heels (literally, in the case of a sore foot he has propped on a hassock) in the company of his tour executive producer, Gigi Lee. Meanwhile, Leno and company move on to rehearse a Celebrity Jeopardy parody that will also be part of the show. “Some people call it meditation,” Morrison continues. “I don’t really like that word either. It’s just creating space, really. It’s the next level up.”
Whatever you want to call it, it’s in that meditative space where an unclassifiable give-and-take seems to occur between Morrison, his band and his public; where he instinctively gauges how far into the music they — we — are willing to follow him on any given night, recalibrating midset, even midlyric, at the slightest shifts in the energy of the room. It’s where, when all the stars align, Morrison can seem like the most generous performer who has ever taken to a stage, putting so much of himself into every howl and guttural scat that you fear he might vaporize into thin air. And it’s where Morrison will strip a song we thought we knew down to its component parts and rebuild it — stretch it out — before our very ears, as if he had just figured out how to do so in that very moment, which he very well might have.
That’s not to say that Morrison is incapable of playing a 3:50 version of “Slim Slow Slider” when the occasion calls for it. But what Morrison isn’t is the sort of artist who goes out and plays a song exactly as it sounded on the album. Even the Astral Weeks Live tour, which ostensibly adheres to a more defined template than a typical Morrison show, has proven to be so fluid — with everything from arrangements and song order to the number of musicians in the band changing from one night to the next — that the live album and DVD recorded at the Hollywood Bowl, and released in February, offer only a rough approximation of the shows Morrison has more recently performed in New York, London and Berkeley. The constant has been Morrison himself, who has been playing harder — two hourlong sets a night, separated by an intermission — and more soulfully than he has in years, inviting favorable comparison to the Caledonia Soul Orchestra shows captured on his seminal 1974 live album, It’s Too Late to Stop Now. What’s more, Morrison has rarely seemed to be enjoying himself so much, flashing a broad, toothy grin; cracking up onstage at some unknown private joke at least once per night, usually during “Ballerina”; even occasionally talking to the audience.
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