Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl

There are certain albums that should come with a warning sticker: “This music may haunt you indefinitely.” Originally released in late 1968, Van Morrison?s song cycle Astral Weeks is at once obscure yet immediate, dense yet translucent, poetic yet visceral. Once heard it’s not forgotten — for many it’s a touchstone of popular music. Morrison has revisited moments from this transcendent work throughout his career; “Cypress Avenue,” with its impassioned cry of “It’s too late to stop now,” has served as a highlight of his live performances for decades. But Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl consciously reexamines the earlier masterpiece, song by song. A risky business to say the least, no matter the artistic caliber of a revered figure like Morrison. Who wants a new Moby-Dick ? Yet the live recording works. No, it doesn?t carry the expressive charge of the original, but who could expect that? Astral Weeks was a personal testament, an outpouring of memory and emotion, a bittersweet, conflicted meditation on Morrison?s Irish roots brought to life by a cadre of superb supporting musicians including the jazz greats, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Connie Kay. The live album has a different purpose; it serves to remind us that Morrison remains one of the great vocalists of our time. Given beautifully wrought songs — and few come as beautiful as these — Morrison is able to sink his teeth in and deliver some of his richest, least mannered singing of his mid-period career. Although he messes with the order of the songs and adds occasional codas, the instrumental arrangements, replete with swirling violin, string bass, and occasional harpsichord, hew closely to the 1968 takes. Looking back inspires the Gaelic folk-rocker. Listen to the way his tender vocal subtly recasts the melody of “Besides You,” rendering it new, yet linked in grace to the adored original. A more satisfying visit to the past can’t be asked for.