Wednesday, March 4, 2009

"Astral Weeks" Redux

For years, Van Morrison was one of the few recording artists whose new album I'd buy without hearing it first. After a while, though, disappointed too many times, I stopped because I'd listen to his new albums once or twice and then never again.

But when I heard a few months ago that he was going to do Astral Weeks live at the Hollywood Bowl, I was intrigued. It's a classic Morrison album--perhaps the classic album--one that defines his career.

For that reason, I wish I could write that this new live version is better than--or at least as good as--the original.

It's not.

I've only listened to it once, so it's just possible it may grow on me, but my initial impression was that it wasn't especially well-recorded, with too many of the instruments almost buried in the mix. Worse, Morrison's singing really came alive until "Sweet Thing," the third track on the album.

Even then, I felt he was holding back, and I found myself wondering if it was his legendary shyness or whether, like Bob Dylan, there's a part of him that just doesn't care what the audience thinks.

Another problem, are the absences of Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay (who died in 1994) and Richard Davis, the bassist who's played with everyone from Eric Dolphy to Janis Ian. Their replacements try, but Bobby Ruggiero plods where Kay danced, and while David Hayes does a fair job of channeling Davis, he lacks Davis's gravitas and authority.

Is the reason I don't like Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl more because I'm comparing it to the original instead of judging it on its own merits?


But I like both versions of Love's Forever Changes, the original that came out in 1967 and the 2003 live version with a band that was actually Baby Lemonade. I've listened to the live and studio albums one after the other, enjoying how guitarists Rusty Squeezebox and Mike Randle embellish original guitarist Johnny Echols' parts, and marvelling at how Arthur Lee compensates for not being able to hit the notes he could have nailed 35 years before.

The same's true of Smile, Brian Wilson's 2004 release of what's been called "the Great Lost Beach Boy's Album." Van Dyke Parks's new arrangements tie together threads that were left loose earlier, different, but not better or worse, than the earlier album. And, while Wilson's voice is far more ravaged than Lee's, you understand listening to him that (like Lee) he's lived what he once only wrote about.

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