Arts Desk

Van Morrison at DAR Constitution Hall ~ The Concert and the Interview

Van Morrison's gift was the ability to cop a religious experience from the little stuff—the shade of a redwood tree; Jackie Wilson on a staticky radio; a glass of water. Oh, and women—not for nothing was his first hit (with Irish rockers Them) an elision: Gloria, the chick, and gloria, the great hosanna.

That spiritual suggestibility came off rather muted on Thursday night, when Morrison brought his Astral Weeks revival tour to DAR Constitution Hall. Clad in his signature pinstripe suit, tinted sunglasses, and the fedora that's been glued to his head for the past decade, Van addressed the audience only once—at the end, to thank the band—and otherwise seemed more concerned with PA glitches than with, say, his immortal soul.

The current tour is the first in which Morrison has performed Astral Weeks in its entirety. In certain circles, this is a big deal. And while he isn't so much performing the songs as trotting them out, the thrill of recognition is enough to carry the suite. Chalk up some of that eeriness to the presence of Richard Davis, who played upright bass (arguably the lead instrument) on the original record. Over those freely wrought, back-turning basslines, Morrison sang with his new voice—a bark-like thing with little time for dynamics but still capable of the righteous flutter and the tearful break. But woe to he who hasn't memorized the record: Morrison's latter-day delivery leaves much to the imagination, lyrics-wise; and the slurs and mumbles that once seemed inspired now seem merely unavoidable. Also: A woman in front of me laughed when Morrison promised to "stroll the merry way / and jump the hedges first"; and "Beside You" now sounds vaguely like a threat.

"Northern Muse (Solid Ground)," meanwhile, had Morrison showing off his facility on the piano, and while he omitted his traditional soul-growl from "Listen to the Lion," he blew a churning harmonica vamp on "Mystic Eyes." Van's still spinning a clipped cadence and being willfully inscrutable, but the through-the-nose crowd lapped it up.

Before the performance, Morrison responded by email to a number of my questions. His responses—terse and, yes, willfully inscrutable—below:

Last November, we heard that Astral Weeks at the Bowl would be a one-off. What prompted the decision to tour?

Because the Bowl was so well received, the demand grew. I originally intended just two shows in Hollywood, to get it recorded live from the stage, raw and uncut. And that was it.

While you've done songs like "Cyprus Avenue" in concert before, these shows are the first time you've played Astral Weeks in its entirety. Why never before? Why now?

Because this music is timeless, for one, and the record did not get any promotion whatsoever when it came out. These are the least performed songs in my repertoire.

One of the mysteries of Astral Weeks is the fantastic looseness of the band. On the subsequent four records—the exception, perhaps, being Moondance—your backing groups hew to a tighter, more consistent sound. Did you take a stronger hand in arrangements after Astral Weeks? How did the experience of writing and recording that album affect your approach in the studio?

Yes, their brief was to "follow the vocal." And that was exactly what they did, under my direction.

You've spoken publicly about your experience with stage fright. Has that fear dissipated with age?

I do not have stage fright any more, though I had it a couple of times in the past.

How does your current lineup stack up with, say, the Caledonia Soul Orchestra or the Caledonia Soul Express? Is there a different approach on this tour?

The Caledonia Soul Orchestra was from another time when it was all about going deep into the music and nothing else.

What will your next record sound like?

Whatever my soul dictates, I suppose. Good question.

What is the first record you remember listening to? The first record you bought? The last record you bought?

The first record I remember hearing was Bing Crosby on the radio—a song called "Please." The first record I bought was a 78 of Sonny Terry, an instrumental. I believe the last record I bought was Louis Armstrong—I buy those over and over...even if I already have it!

"St. Dominic's Preview," as far as I can tell, is a song about what to do once you’ve gotten what you’ve always wanted; for you, I imagined it was also about reconciling poetic integrity with commercial success. Is that fair? And can you please explain where the idea for the song came from—what is St. Dominic's Preview?

I was writing at the time—I remember reading about a St. Dominic's Church in San Francisco. Also, there was a French song about St. Dominic, which may or may not be relevant because songs come in such mysterious ways sometimes....

This is a hobbyist question, but I can't help myself: If you could compose a band of any artists from any era, what would that band look like? E.g., James Jamerson on bass, Howard Johnson in the horn section...who would that be for you?

I have been around long enough to know there is no "ideal" band. Bands are very individual and work to the musical goals. The ones I might choose may or may not be able to go where I need to go or grasp where I want to be, no matter what their pedigree is. That is a loaded question...but a good one.

Photograph above by Brian Reed

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  • John

    I have loved Van Morrison's music since I was a child (I'm about to turn 50) and have waited a long time to experience his greatness at a concert. Now, I've heard the stories about his stage fright and his disdain for an audience and others that would suggest that the experience would not be so good. I wish those suggestions would have hit me harder before my wife and I spent hundreds of dollars and traveled over a hundred miles for that experience. Be clear, we are not fans that only like or listen to his popular hits, we love Van's soul and style and voice on just about every piece he does. However, I admit that we are not familiar with Astral Weeks and were unable to find time to buy and listen to it prior to the concert. Well, last night (8/7/2009) at D.A.R. Constitution Hall, not only did Van NOT perform even one recognizable song (for the record, we enjoyed every song he did perform), but he FAILED to perform an encore for devoted fans who cheered for several full minutes (with lights flashing on and off as if to suggest it would happen) before the house lights were turned up and left up. This disrespect was uncalled for and MR. Morrison should be ashamed of himself for misplacing his bad manners toward those that love his music and his talent. If he had done the concert exactly as he did, but with an encore of even just one or two songs that the would bring the whole audience together, and to their feet, the experience would have been unforgettable. Instead, when all was said and done, there was confusion and not one smiling face in the place as far as I could see. Van, will you ever learn your lesson? My wife and I and about three thousand others learned ours last night.

  • Todd Rosen

    I, too, am in my late forties and have been a huge Van fan for decades. I have collected everything he has recorded, first on vinyl, and then on cd (and have some extraordinary bootleg recordings that I hunted for over the years in little record shops in Greenwich Village). His music is an intrinsic part of my persona: it has provided me with so much solace and pleasure and inspiration over many years. I have seen him in concert about 10 times and he is indeed unpredictable: from the sublime to, frankly, uninspired and disappointing. But I still go, hoping for the sublime.
    Now Astral Weeks is an exquisite record which, along with Veedon Fleece, I consider to be absolute masterpieces: both records have the ability to transport me to a different realm. When I found out he was re-recording Astral Weeks live, I (like many, many hardcore fans out there) was extremely excited. For me it was hearing these songs again, interpreted in a different light, from his more mature perspective with his older, more seasoned voice. One cannot re-create a masterpiece, but I was delighted to hear this re-interpretation.
    Admittedly, however, I was wary of seeing him again in concert, months after the live album has come out, performing these songs. I had a feeling that the thrill would have worn off for him by now. Would it be worth the money and potential disappointment? But I'm a huge fan, remember, and this would be my only chance to hear him sing this complete record, one that is so important to me: I felt that I had to go.
    I spent over $500 for 2 tickets (face price) and these were not even for prime seats. I was 30 odd rows back and off to the side. The prime seating was $350 a pop. This is fucking insane. No wonder the audience comprised such an older, well-healed crowd--what young person could have afforded to go? I took my 17-year-old daughter, because I thought this would be a seminal experience for her. And she was a trooper, I have to admit.
    Besides the Astral Weeks songs, he played obscure but great stuff. He played two songs off of Veedon Fleece for God's sake. I am familiar with all his songs, and so this was fine. For his fans who are not so well-versed there was not one recognizable song. And that is a bit of a shame. He could have done a few of his hits--why not? Apparently he was catering to those fans, like me, who know the obscure stuff, and was relying on the general beauty of the songs and the topnotch musicianship. Well, for my daughter, it was OK. She enjoyed the music even if she didn't know the songs. And for the most part the crowd was pretty adulatory. Until the end.
    For him not to recognize the crowd at all was, you know, Van being Van. That's how he is. OK. I would accept that if he still gave a spectacular kick-ass performance. But he did not. The performance was good but it was not rousing. His last song, Hyndord Street, wasn't even a song, it was a prose poem. And his not giving a single encore was absolutely deplorable. His devoted fans stood there, and waited, and clapped, and expected something: anything. But no, we were left hanging. I won't forgive him for that, and I will not go to another Van show again. This was my last. There is really no point, when you can listen to the recordings, and be transported by them, to spend that much money on a live show with such a great chance of disappointment.

  • Warren

    My wife and I spent almost six hundred dollars on tickets to see Van Morrison last night. This was an extraordinary leap of faith on our part. The risk ofcourse is that the show might not have been worth it in the end. As the show went on we believed we were really getting our moneys' worth, however, nothing could have prepared us for the giant "F--- You" that was so arrogantly thrown in our face like a stale bucket of piss at the end of the show last night. Van Morrison left the stage after completing a few songs that implied the show was building up to something great, and left a couple of thousand clapping fans holding their satchells for ten minutes while we waited for the show to be completed with even one encore song. It was as though he couldn't wait to let the audience know what he really thinks of them.
    I am 42 years old and have loved Van Morrison since I was very young. I will never forget the feeling he left us with last night and I will never play his egocentric music again.

  • Abby

    Todd Rosen pretty much sums up my own experience of the concert. I've been listening to Astral Weeks for over 35 years, been to many Stateside and British concerts, and didn't really need to hear the words since I've had them memorized. But it is the disdain he shows towards his own backup musicians that is most deplorable. Would it have killed him to give their names and a thank you? I understand not wanting to play the hits, as it would have lifted the spell, but a word or two of thanks to his musicians at the end would have been good.

  • stevekiviat

    Dave McKenna's review in the W. Post talks about how Morrison spoke to his band:

    "Morrison treated his band and crew horribly. In the midst of "Fair Play," one of a handful of non-"Astral" tunes in the set, he decided he didn't like the tempo and screamed at his drummer to switch from brushes to sticks. Morrison was close enough to the microphone that the crowd couldn't avoid taking in the humiliation. He later summoned a roadie to the center of the stage to move his microphone and music stands a few feet away from him, then screamed an obscenity at him while telling him to leave the stage."

  • Denine

    This was my first time seeing Van and his talented band that was orchestrated to a perfection at the D.A.R. I enjoyed every moment that he gave us on stage. It was a amzaing performance of vocals and music joined to perfection. It took a lot for him to sing every song from Atral weeks without taking a break. I would have liked an encore, but at the it would have spoiled the artistic way he walked off stage playing. Thank you Van, you are the Man.

  • Tony

    I am not a Van Morrison fan, my wife however is. We are in our mid 40's, spent about the same, $500 for tickets, hired a babysitter for 6 hours. Made the trip into the city for the Friday night concert. Hit the bar for some double vodka/tonics before the 9pm cutoff. I enjoyed the concert experience because it was a night out with the wife. I couldn't really understand Van most of the time, brief parts when the orchestra wasn't playing I could though. I am most disappointed for the real fans that he didn't play any popluar hits or even acknowledge the crowd. Then, when he lumbered off the stage at the end and the roadie came out and waved his hands gesturing "no encore". The crowd was very disappointed. My wife has been a fan for over 20 years I think this experience and getting to know the real Van has left a permanent mark.

  • Guy Lewis

    what a joke of a concert. sadly pathetic.

  • pat

    i've had a record of many good shows in the past year, and this jackleg just ruined my streak.

  • cdf

    he was rude; he is a curmudgeon. it was unforgiveable to walk off without so much as a faretheewell. If you read about his first performance of the Astral Weeks tour, with encores and intermissions and old hits, you know that what we got at DAR was a pittance.

    Nonetheless, his performance of No Guru No Method No Teacher was simply astonishing. $300 worth? probably not...

    but I will not quit listening to his incredible works; I'll just avoid the opportunity to see him again

  • MRS

    The show ... well I'm no so sure because $250 for one box seat at Constitution Hall = five shaky chairs thrown into a space made for three, first come first serve, to twist your neck look through people's heads and possibly catch a glimpse of Van Morrision on the stage. You're kidding, right? What a waste of money. I'll never go there again.

  • beg

    This is my third Van Morrison concert, first in Belfast was so-so, second at Patriot Center was excellent, this one was off to a great start..2 solid hours of great, albeit lesser known songs. He had multiple standing ovations throughout and then he had a hissy fit and walked off. I actually thought he had an emergency call of nature, the departure was so unexpected and abrupt! Many of the previous posts said he failed to give an encore, but I could read the onstage playlist from my seat and he left with multiple songs remaining, including some standards. I got the clear impression that he had gotten his famously unpredictable knickers in a knot and walked off. Shame on him. He had us even if he never said hello...and then he blew it at the end. Love his music, but we deserved better treatment...and we should all get at least 25% refund for the shortened show.

    I saw Paul McCartney the week before and Mr. Morrison could take a wee lesson in showmanship and audience respect from Macca!

  • Lesley Hall

    Prior to Friday's performance at D.A.R., I'd been warned with an offhand comment from my brother, who has been to dozens of Van Morrison concerts. He said, "I hope he's not in one of his funky misanthropic moods." I laughed it off, but now I see just how important Morrison's mood is to the whole experience of seeing him live. To say he is temperamental is one of the all-time great understatements.

    However, the Washington Post review of his Thursday concert at D.A.R. hit the nail on the head. Morrison really is an artist, not an entertainer. Like others, I was taken aback by the harsh way he treated his awesome band and how he ended the concert by cryptically walking offstage while still strumming his guitar, leaving us wondering if that was it for the night. But I must say, when he was onstage and pouring it out for us, myself and everyone around me were awestruck by his talent and soul. It was a privilege to hear him live after a lifetime of fandom through his recordings alone. Yes, I wish he'd interacted with us just a little. I wish he'd thrown us a bone by giving up at least one encore. But I would see him again in a flash, and next time would play top dollar to get a closer seat.

    My advice to all who purchase tickets to see Van the Man in the future, in whatever venue and with whatever theme he's working: Hope he's not in one of his funky misanthropic moods. But if he is, enjoy the music while it lasts.

  • tmginnova

    All of these whiners are complaining about the money they spent, Van's surliness, the lack of a friggin' encore. Do you know anything about rock and pop music of the past 40-50 years? Astral Weeks is a treasure, and he played every bit of it. He played straight through for almost 2 hours. It was wonderful!! Save your money for Britteny or some such nonsense.

  • Sharon

    My exposure to Van pretty much mirrors reviewer #1. My husband and I are long-time fans but have never seen him live before the Thursday night show. However, tht was the night he did "reward" the audience with Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria. He exited the stage with the crowd singing G-L-O-R-I-A...and simply did not come back.
    I had read reviews of his earlier Astral Weeks shows, and knew that it would be a crap shoot as to whether or not we'd get anything other than Astral Weeks, as it was very plainly advertised as such, much like Todd Rundgren's current tour in which he plays his new album, and not his hits.

    I'd gamble to see Van again, as from our mid-priced seats ($150, about 9 oclock from the stage in the first level) the sound was terrific and we had a great view of Van and the band. I did not view his need to tell the drummer "sticks" as rude; rather as a simple stage direction, which may have very well been planned as an option - in advance - depending on what Van wanted to hear with the song. I did feel he may have gotten slightly off kilter wanting to move his position on the stage back two feet as it affected just about every other musician on the stage. That was a tad distracting, but from what I've read about his tempermental personality, in perhaps another time that would have put him over the edge.

    We bought the Astral Weeks live prior to the show but did not have time to listen to it. Now I'm thinking I would prefer to have the original issue so I have a chance of understanding the words. As with Van, many of his lyrics are breathtaking and the music is beyond compare. But perhaps all musical genuises are a bit off kilter.

  • cheryl wenn

    I'm 54 yrs. old and have been listening to Van since I was 15. I paid $750 for 2 tickets from the "Live Nation" website, arrived from Virginia Beach and met a dear friend who drove down from upstate New York to attend the concert with me. He was actually the one who turned me on to Van Morrison at such a young age. We have never paid so much for two tickets, but we thought that at this time of our lives we would be extravagant b/c there are no guarantees for tomorrow...for Van or for us! We couldn't wait! We were six rows back dead center! The show....well all I can say is that I watched an entire show where Van browbeat his bandmates and had the stage hands cowering! I can't figure out how someone who writes and performs such beautiful lyrics and then turn around to bully those around him. I know the obvious answer, but it was painful to watch! I guess there wasn't a chance in a million that I was going to hear one of my favorites, "Be Thou My Vision."

  • Ric

    What a rip off. Don't go. I just spent a $1,000 on four tickets for the Baltimore show (10/27) and it was terrible. At $60 each, perhaps worthwhile.
    Band was not tight. Van could not play the guitar at all; it is just a prop. Very sad for him, but not fair to an audience paying a fortune to not disclose what you are really getting. Not a word to the audience, no encore despite long requests. Individually band members very talented and delightful to hear. Much needed to cover Van's many misses. Moondance, Brown Eye G, and Gloria were almost unrecognizable. Don't spend money on this, you will be disappointed. Ric

  • Alec

    A year has passed and I'm still upset about this show. I've been listening to Van since the 60's and one of my life's ambitions was to hear him live. He mailed it in. I've seen many great performances...James Taylor at the old Cellar Door on M St, Billy Joel at a small club in Memphis. Van was in another county...or country. His insufferable lack of respect for his audience and his band was shameful.