LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - In the waning moments of his performance of the 1968 album "Astral Weeks," Van Morrison offered his thanks to the Hollywood Bowl audience last Saturday, quipping, "You've made a happy man very old."
Perhaps intended only as jokey stage banter, the remark nonetheless seemed apt on a night in which Morrison revisited "Astral Weeks."
Not only is the album famously rich with gauzy meditations on halcyon days gone by, but the weekend's two performances marked Morrison's first occasions to play this early career milestone (released when he was only 23) in its entirety, 40 years since its release. The momentousness of an aged master returning to the triumphs of his youth lent an air of gravitas to the proceedings that was palpable.
Warming up with a set of career-spanning tracks, Morrison and his 13-piece backing band stumbled a bit in the early going. Prowling the stage, Morrison coached (sternly at times) the various musicians as they gathered steam on opening tracks "Wavelength" and "St. Dominic's Preview." Morrison seemed typically aloof, but impassioned as he delivered the loose nine-song set that touched on radio staples ("Caravan") along with more obscure, expansive selections ("Summertime in England").
Morrison's voice has been miraculously unaffected by age, and can still provide the soaring dynamics of his finest work, almost single-handedly. Despite a few uneven musical moments, this remarkable quality remained evident throughout the opening set.
A frequently inscrutable live performer, Morrison ventured some interesting risks with more familiar material. The Them-era nugget "Here Comes the Night" benefited from a more languid pace, disguising the recording's jagged proto-garage guitar leads as sighing string lines. Similar liberties were taken with "Brown Eyed Girl," of which the first verse and chorus wafted atop shimmering layers of acoustic guitar, before launching into a full-fledged sing-a-long at mid-song. The first set concluded with a seemingly obligatory rendition of "Gloria," the lone point of the show in which Morrison seemed a bit less than engaged.
After a brief intermission to reconfigure the stage, Morrison and band returned for the evening's main event. Rather than a note-for-note replication of the recorded "Astral Weeks," Morrison kept the arrangements open-ended, in a manner befitting the album's breezy, improvisational feel. In this same spirit, he even slightly rearranged the track order, a deft move that kept the audience eagerly anticipating each segue from song to song.
The sprawling ensemble proved more than capable of conveying both the intimate intensity and mystic grandeur of the original material. At the same time, the players still triumphed in offering a fresh perspective on songs that have been much beloved and scrutinized for decades. The album's title track roared to life with a souped-up, drum-propelled arrangement, while the push and pull of the tempo on "Ballerina" lent the song a thick, R&B-flavored groove that strangely complimented the baroque delicacy of the recorded original.
The set proved to be full of such pleasingly memorable surprises. Morrison seemed intent on allowing each track the proper space to gently trickle in, dramatically rise and fall, and finally drift away. At numerous times, audience members shouted their approval as the band collectively swelled into a striking crescendo or simmered to a whispered interlude. Whereas the first set had been played with an endearing sense of celebration, all parties seemed to appreciate the significance of breathing life into "Astral Weeks," and elevated their playing accordingly.
Following an appropriately dramatic exit from the stage, in which he slowly strolled away while singing a scat vocal over an extended outro to "Madame George," Morrison returned for a surprisingly brief single-song encore of "Listen to the Lion." At that song's conclusion, many in the audience seemed shocked when the Hollywood Bowl lights flashed up and crews rapidly tore down the sizable stage. While some attendees began filing out, many lingered in their seats -- some perhaps still clinging to the hope that Morrison would return to the stage. More likely, most were still soaking in the historical import of what they had witnessed.
Revisiting past glories can be a dicey proposition for artists, particularly in the young man's game of rock'n'roll. But on this evening, Morrison's spellbinding performance spoke to the timelessness of both the artist and his work. Cynical viewers may have expected only a portrait of the artist as an old man, but the magic surrounding man and music clearly remain potent. That potency seemed evident even to Morrison, as the music appeared to bring the hint of an ultra-rare smile to his usually dour expression. He almost looked ... well, happy.