The Morrison Of Many Instruments
I have read that when Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks came out in 1968, it created hardly a ripple. That enigmatic album, perhaps Morrison’s best work, took some time before it was critically acclaimed and then became the one album that you just had to have in your collection. Van Morrison, who has made nearly 40 albums in his 50-plus-year career, and whose music has been categorised variously as soul, R&B, Celtic, folk, country, rock and so many other labels, was 23 when Astral Weeks was released 43 years ago.
Three years back, on the 40th anniversary of that album, Morrison, then 63, did a live performance at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl where he performed the eight songs on the album and a few more. That album, Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, was released in 2009. But, although Van Morrison’s live performances are heady and an other-worldly experience (I have never seen him sing live but just listening to his live recordings can transport me to some other place), the live version of Astral Weeks is not a patch on the 1968 album, a recording that I often reach out to listen to with my eyes shut tight. The other album by the Irish singer and multi-instrumentalist (Morrison can play the guitar, harmonica, keyboards and the saxophone but more than anything else, he has a hypnotic voice that always transfixes you) that I love is Moondance, which came out in 1970. I can listen to those two albums on continuous repeat for hours.
So, in what was otherwise a frenetic week filled with too many things to do, a couple of late nights and barely enough time to do what I like most—listen to music—I was reaching a point of near-despair when out of the blue dropped a free download, a live recording straight from the soundboard of a concert at the Beacon Theatre on November 30, 1989. There are 28 songs in the recording, including three where the legendary bluesman, John Lee Hooker, joins Van Morrison, including one that’s a medley of Gloria and Smokestack Lightning. The first one, Gloria, is the well-known Van Morrison composition that’s been covered by many, while Smokestack Lightning is a Howlin’ Wolf composition.
The thing about the concert—it’s called 1989 The Unabridged Concert—is that unlike other bootlegs, it is of great quality. The recording is shiny and clean and the sound boasts of very high fidelity. I haven’t seen a commercially released CD of this concert but going by the quality of the recording that has been doing the rounds, it would be a breeze to put together one.
I’ve tried collecting as many of Van Morrison albums that I could. Besides Astral Weeks and Moondance—and, of course, the bootleg concert that I just mentioned—I have Tupelo Honey, Into The Music and Avalon Sunset, which makes up for a smallish fraction of what he has released during his long career. I feel a little sheepish about the fact that I got to hear Van Morrison rather late in life. It was only in 1989 or 1990 that a friend of mine passed on Astral Weeks and said to me: “There are not many albums that are better than this.” At that time, I was steeped in psychedelic music, too busy preferring space jams and guitar noodlings and bass voyages to be listening to a guy who, I was told, melds blues and R&B and country and soul and Celtic folk music to make something singular. Astral Weeks (and I say this with a lot of shame) lay around somewhere in my collection for months before I put it on for the first time. I was jolted by what I heard and instantly became a fan of Van Morrison.
Much later I read about how he had influenced legions of younger rock bands and singers, including a man with a surname that matched his. Yes, I am referring to Jim Morrison of The Doors. Before he went solo, Van Morrison’s band, Them, toured the US in 1966 and played for a few weeks at L.A.’s Whisky A Go Go nightclub where The Doors was their supporting band. I have read that the two bands jammed on Gloria and that Jim picked up many mannerisms from Van. I’m not sure whether that’s one more apocryphal rock story but it sounds nice, doesn’t it?