For anyone who wasn't at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night, there'd be little chance of explaining how Van Morrison's repetition of one seemingly innocuous sentence -- "This is a train" -- could turn into a deeply spiritual incantation.
But transcendence is what Morrison has been after with his music from the beginning, and it's what he achieved frequently on Friday, when he played his watershed 1968 album "Astral Weeks" live in its entirety for the first time. That included the repetitive vocal workout on the "train" phrase from "Madame George," one of the cornerstone songs of "Astral Weeks," an empathetic portrait of a transvestite's journey through the streets of Belfast, Morrison's birthplace.
To these ears, it evolved from statement ("This is a train") to question ("Is this a train?") to invitation/command ("Get on the train!"), an intensely moving progression that crystallized his alchemist's approach to music.
He's long known the power of a mantra -- the chanting of a word, phrase or verse has become a potent signature of his music. Every good gospel preacher knows the cumulative power of repetition. Morrison doesn't preach, he seeks -- an answer, or communion -- and the chant becomes his method in relentless pursuit of one or both. When everyday language just wouldn't do, he shifted to syllables, growls, moans, sometimes just phonemes, anything that would take him, and his audience, where he wanted to go.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Van Morrison: In Monday's Calendar, a photo caption with a review of Friday's Van Morrison concert at the Hollywood Bowl referred to the event as "one night only." Morrison also performed at the Bowl on Saturday.
In "Beside You," it was the phrase "you breathe in/you breathe out" looped back on itself enough to replicate the fundamental life process. For "Cyprus Avenue," he sputtered out words, "My Generation" style, about being tongue-tied in the presence of his beloved. Fiddle player Tony Fitzgibbon paralleled him with skittering bowed runs while pianist Roger Kellaway dribbled out notes accordingly.
And in the climactic "Madame George," it was the circular "the loves to love the loves to love the loves to love."
True to form, he showed no interest in re-creating what he did 40 years ago in a New York recording studio but was focused on revamping the song structure dramatically in service of the present.
The performance opened, as the album does, with the title song and was followed by "Beside You." He then abandoned the original's song sequence by continuing with the album's closer, "Slim Slow Slider," and then moving into a 1-2 punch created by placing the two jazz waltzes, "Sweet Thing" and "The Way Young Lovers Do," back to back. The arrangement impressively balanced competing time signatures, a 3/4 waltz seamlessly working in tandem with a subservient 4/4 pulse.
The wondrous youthful timbre of his voice then has evolved over the years into a richer, fuller instrument, with every bit of its remarkable elasticity intact.
The poetic imagery he crafted for "Astral Weeks" was light-years beyond the straightforward narratives of his early rock hits with Them, such as "Here Comes the Night" and "Gloria," or even his first solo hit, "Brown Eyed Girl," the latter two reconstructed during the show's career-spanning first half. He reached forward as far as "The Healing Game" but spent most of that first portion tapping the '70s and '80s material he's visited only sporadically in concert in recent years.
It was easy to see why Morrison said he'd always wanted to do "Astral Weeks" live with the kind of large and resourceful band that backed him at the Bowl. As it turned out, that band did not include bassist Richard Davis, who'd been on the original recording sessions, because Davis had a last-minute family matter come up, Kellaway said Saturday. Instead, longtime Morrison band member David Hayes handled the woody stand-up instrument that's so crucial to the album's unique sonic palette.
The jazz-rooted compositions of "Astral Weeks" are poetic stories of young love and the quest to find one's place in life. They were, and remain, ideal source material for musical improvisation that gives way to the sense of wonder for which Morrison has always striven.