Van Morrison Goes Astral on The Tonight Show

“I need to know that he’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.

“The playing part is okay and the singing part is okay,” Morrison says in typically taciturn fashion back in theTonight Show dressing room, “but the rest of it is pretty much the same thing, having to deal with a lot of people and situations you don’t want to deal with to get this done.” Situations, one assumes, like The Tonight Show itself, where it has now been agreed that the floor director will hold up a cue card during the song to give Morrison a 30-second warning. Not that he ends up needing it. When Morrison finally goes on, following appearances by Tim Allen and Star Trek co-star John Cho, he performs brilliantly, his voice warm and resonant, his fingers strumming the guitar strings violently as he sings the lyric “I start breaking down” — and then, with an almost imperceptible signal to the band, the final chords. Three minutes 50 and not a second more.

 

There is such a thing as a Van Morrison set list, I discover, when I stop by the next day’s Orpheum sound check, although the neatly typed page of about 20 titles (with a handful of others labeled as “options”) contains several songs that have not been heard at all during the Astral Weeks Live tour and omits several more that Morrison has done at almost every gig. As the band adjourns to dinner, the piano and trumpet player Paul Moran, who has been touring with Morrison for three years now, tells me that the band has to be prepared to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 songs at the drop of a hat — or, rather, at a shout from Morrison, who typically calls out the name of the next song he wants to play while the crowd is still applauding the previous one.

“It certainly keeps you on your toes,” adds Jay Berliner, the classically trained guitarist who performed on the original Astral Weeks recording and was “just a little” surprised when Morrison phoned him out of the blue after 40 years to ask if he’d join him on the road. Berliner, a veteran session musician whose very long resumé includes gigs with Jacques Brel and Charles Mingus and three years touring with Harry Belafonte, happily said yes, taking an extended hiatus from his seat in the orchestra of the Broadway revival of Chicago.

Ironically, Berliner says, he barely met Morrison at the 1968 Astral sessions, during which the singer locked himself in the recording booth and only occasionally stuck his head out to give terse instructions to the band. “There was a lot of smoke in the booth — I remember that,” he says with a chuckle. This time around, however, Morrison and Berliner have developed a full-bodied rapport that has been one of the consistent pleasures of the tour, the singer approaching the guitarist multiple times each night and inviting from him imaginative, flamenco-style solos, which, in turn, seem to re-energize Morrison, push him to new heights. Berliner is, in Morrison’s words, someone who “understands what it is, intuitively, and he’s got the background in order to go where he needs to go. As long as you’ve got two or three people who get where you’re going,” he adds, “they can bring the rest along.”

With the Astral Weeks Live tour winding down, Morrison tells me he may take some time off to regroup — something he hasn’t really done since a 1974-76 retreat from the spotlight prompted by his on-again, off-again battle with stage fright. “I’d like to get back to writing — not necessarily songs, just, like, my viewpoints on my experience of being in this, whatever it is,” he says. Does he mean show biz, I ask? “I don’t really know what it is,” he replies. “It’s different things to different people.”

In the meantime, Morrison is electrifying twice more on the Orpheum stage Thursday and Friday (only a flight to Europe prevents me from catching the Saturday show, too). On the first night, he holds forth with a particularly inspired “Sweet Thing” that morphs unexpectedly into the “Burning Ground” track from 1997’s The Healing Game album, making rhythmic knocks on his guitar with his right hand while pressing his harmonica to his lips with his left, singing and knocking and blowing in unison, as if the music were bursting out through his every extremity. Friday, it’s a cover of “Georgia On My Mind” that similarly brings down the house, the song seeming to rise up from so deep inside Morrison that I’m reminded of something he told me during our first interview, in November of last year, about how performing live was akin to baring scars. Which, relatively speaking, makes Morrison’s recent shows something like the concert version of the stigmata.

As Morrison prefaces the Astral Weeks set-closer, “Madame George,” by likening the song to a series of opium-induced hallucinations — “à la Fellini, if you know what I mean” — a couple seated behind me tell me they’ve driven all the way from Tulsa for the three Orpheum concerts and will not go home disappointed. This is the sort of devotion Morrison inspires in his fans and, more often than not, richly rewards. We may come to see him bare his scars, and his soul, but we also come in search of the mysterious healing that he has so often sung about, and which he seems able to find only inside his own music. We come baring our own scars and tattered souls, hopeful that before the curtain falls and the lights go up, that healing will — for him and for us — have begun.


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