Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Astral-agy: Van Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl - 11/7/08

Greetings. I promise I've not been as idle as it seems. Am ushering what is for me a semimajor and long-incubating journalistic project toward completion. I won't put too fine a point on it this minute, but if you've been reading this blog even a little bit over the past, say, six months, you can probably guess what I'm talking about. Anyway, more to come on that.


Right this minute, let us discuss Van Morrison. The whole Don't Look Back concept--wherein an artist revisits a classic album in concert--is commonplace these days, some might even say it's completely run its course. But when I heard a few months back that Van the Man was re-creating Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl in L.A., which he did this past weekend, I knew this was something I wanted to check out.

Laal was onboard and we've both got relatives out West, so we decided to splurge and make the trip. One of the main draws for me was the tidbit of advance info that Richard Davis would be on the gig. I don't really even have to think twice about naming this man my favorite jazz bassist of all time; I've gushed about him on here before, but let's just briefly name Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, and Dolphy and Booker Little's Live at the Five Spot sessions, agree that these are some of the very finest jazz records ever made and reflect on the fact that they would not necessarily be so--or so utterly so--were it not for Davis's wizardly mastery. Let us add to this illustrious--and merely surface-scratching--list the fact that Davis not only performed on but straight-up fueled Astral Weeks, surely one of the most strange and visionary albums ever made, period, and we'll agree that the man is a giant. (And if we're still not convinced, we'll sit right down and watch this insane duo version of "Summertime" with Elvin Jones.)

But heartbreakingly, Davis was not on the gig. There were two sets at the show, the first one a sort of greatest-hits dealio with Van's regular band, and then Davis and Jay Berliner (who played classical guitar on Astral Weeks, not to mention Mingus's Black Saint and the Sinner Lady) were slated to come out for the Astral finale. 'Twas, for whatever reason, not to be: The same bassist from the first set, a Caucasian gentlemen whom I didn't recognize, emerged after the break and performed on all the Astral material.

I was reeling, believe me, but this was no waste of time. There is nothing lightweight or trite or over-the-hill or unriveting whatsoever about seeing Van Morrison live on a stage. To use a word from Astral Week's uberpoetic "Beside You," the man is a dynamo. We were seated in the middle of the amphitheater, and he was really just a little dot down there, but the Jumbotron was all fired up, so it was all good.

Watching the concert, the phrase that kept running through my head was "extended techniques." You see this term a lot in writing about experimental improv; basically what it means is using an instrument in a way it isn't traditionally supposed to be used, like, say what people like Axel Doerner or Greg Kelley on trumpet. In that world, a lot of these sorts of techniques ceased to be experimental years and years ago--my buds and I often refer to the excessive or gimmicky or ostentatious deployment of them as "thingin'"--but in Morrison's hands they seemed genuinely adventurous. I know that Morrison can be a ham as well as an experimenter and that some of his seemingly spontaneous tangents are merely routine cliches (during "Cyprus Avenue" at the Bowl, Van replicated the "my t-t-t-t-tongue gets tied" bit that he's been trotting out since at least the mid-'70s, to judge by the live album It's Too Late Too Stop Now). But I could swear that during a lot of this concert he was just throwing stuff at the wall to see what would stick, in the vein of the iconically sore-thumb-ish "...really wrong, really wrong" groan-out in the middle of "Caravan" from "The Last Waltz," a performance which, criminally, has been removed from YouTube as part of a massive seemingly Morrison-sanctioned regulation of all his clips on the site.

Anyway, but unless his band members were faking it, they were on their toes during this entire show. Morrison performed a lot of familiar tunes during the first set--"Saint Dominic's Preview," "Moondance" (Van took an awesome, brief and somewhat Lee Konitz-sounding alto-sax solo on this one) and "Brown Eyed Girl" (in a very elegant, folky arrangement)--but he also stretched out on some pieces I didn't know well: one called "Troubadour" and some others I'm forgetting. I don't remember the songs so much as isolated moments of weird, inspired spontaneity. "I want to tell you a story," he blurted out in the ;middle of one tune. "It doesn't have any words." This set off a lengthy scat section, wherein Morrison worked himself into a tongue-speech lather and eventually began emitting rapid-fire grunts in a seeming imitation of a machine-gun. In another tune he looped the line "Way down in the backstreet," then paused and shouted, "That's where I come from, man!" There was a sense of real channeling during the best of these outbursts. Morrison stays planted when he sings, punching his right arm horizontally at the air, as though he's warding off, or maybe inciting, a spirit. He's got no autopilot, or at least he could've fooled me; he really grapples up there.

Some of the most inspired moments of the show didn't involve his voice at all. "Slim Slow Slider," the brief, elegiac wisp of a song that closes out Astral Weeks, got stretched way, way out live (perhaps in honor of the fact that the recorded version was apparently edited big time, as related in various accounts). Van didn't play too much guitar during the show--a fair amount of rhythm strumming and some nice, twangy, pickless self-obbligato playing here and there--but as "Slider" kept on churning, something seized Van and he grabbed the acoustic guitar and started to hammer at it, working up to a harsh, blurry, brutal sort of strumming. It was dissonant, it was anti-technique; it was like some sort of hamfisted heavy-metal mariachi playing. The first thing I thought of was Sonny Sharrock's meaty, vigorous dicing of the instrument on Black Woman.

Speaking of the avant-garde jazz vibe, I felt that heavily in Van's harmonica work. If I remember correctly, he did do some conventional soloing on the harp, but what I recall more were these moments when he seemed to become obsessed w/ the instrument's pure-sound potential and blew messily into it while humming at the same time, producing a weird, airy, slobbery multiphonic din, like something you might hear George Lewis attempt on trombone.

And then there were the patented Morrison mantras--long stretches of trancelike repetition--from the familiar ("the love that loves to love the love that loves the love to love," etc. in "Madame George") to the thoroughly weird and unexpected (he kept injecting the phrase "Get on up," seemingly a la "Sex Machine," throughout the show; at one point he broke without warning into the first verse of Ronnie Hawkins's "Who Do You Love?"; and at the end of "Madame George" he went into an odd riff centered around the phrase "This is a train," before strolling offstage, mike still in hand.

I remember these isolated moments much more than the songs themselves, though I generally found the non-Astral Weeks set to be looser and more enjoyable. Some of the AW stuff felt straitjacketed, e.g. "The Way That Young Lovers Do," which was a spitting image of the original. Most uninspired was "Beside You," a poem of ecstasy on record that had the life sucked out of it onstage. Richard Davis and the other players at the original sessions understood how to let these compositions breathe, but Van's current band seemed to want to normalize the material; the drummer, for one, kept slipping into a backbeat where none were needed, and it felt like a crutch.

But Morrison is well worth catching live, no matter what the setting. He didn't talk much to the crowd, but after "Moondance," when the audience went wild, he said, "Ah, now I get it," alluding to our hunger for the familiar. Morrison's known as horribly cantankerous, but he seemed warm onstage and most of all, inspired. As described above, there's a real sense of grappling, of searching. He's got to be one of the most restless-seeming rock singers I've ever heard live; he's just got this itch to probe and prod his songs, to wring all the weird tics out of them that he can. It's this quality that makes him not just a great singer but a great improviser. He often writes of mystic quests and spiritual journeys, and even though his current band comes off as slick--and even sleepy sometimes--you get the sense that Morrison goes down those metaphysical paths every time he gives a concert.


*I leave you with a song from Van's latest, Keep It Simple. This disc didn't grab me much when I first checked it out, but appropriately, a few isolated tics stuck with me. I love the stubborn repetition of the title line on this tune, the way van just swings with and against the background rhythm. It's a virtuoso tightrope moment disguised as a senile zone-out:

Van Morrison - That's Entrainment
(Wikipedia sez: "Entrainment in the biomusicological sense refers to the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm, usually produced by other organisms with whom they interact socially. Examples include firefly flashing, mosquito wing clapping as well as human music and dance.")

*Also check out this very cordial and forthcoming Van email Q&A from the L.A. Times. Dig how fond the man is of ":)"--gotta love it.


In other matters, hail Traced in Air! (I don't think I really realized how eagerly I was anticipating this until I got my hands on it.) More on that soon.


Anonymous said...

i wish i could have seen that; spent a lot of stoned college days listening to that record.

Phil Freeman said...

Never listened to Morrison beyond the two or three songs played on classic rock radio. The Cynic album is fantastic, though. And I got to interview Paul Masvidal for Metal Edge - incredibly cool, soft-spoken, hyperintellectual guy.