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