‘Astral Weeks’ in Camden Town
If your name isn’t Van Morrison, it takes some kind of courage to tackle Astral Weeks, one of the sacred texts of the late ’60s. No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive. Jazz, folk, rock and blues are all in there, but so thoroughly metabolised that the eight songs create, for the length of a long-playing record, an idiom of their own. In his lyrics, too, Morrison plunged head-on into a new world of poetic spirituality.
So when Orphy Robinson and the Third Eye All Stars presented the album at the Jazz Café last night, there was an element of risk. Morrison himself performed it in its entirety on a tour in 2009, but it was his right to do so, and he brought it off quite satisfactorily, although he couldn’t quite summon the magic that had occurred during three rushed days in the late summer of 1968, when he worked with musicians he didn’t know in a line-up that adhered to no known formula. The idea of someone else taking on this precious and delicate creation and trying to invent variations on its wild, hypnotic swirl of emotions seemed foolhardy, to say the least.
As it turned out, there was no need to worry. The 10-piece Third Eye band — Robinson on vibes and percussion, singers Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, flautist Rowland Sutherland, cellist Kate Shortt, Justina Curtis on electric piano, acoustic guitarists Mo Nazam and John Etheridge, bassist Neville Malcolm and drummer Mark Mondesir — chose not to attempt a radical reinterpretation of the material. They played it straight, content to infuse the music with their own freewheeling spirit.
A couple of solos — Sutherland on “Cyprus Avenue” and Robinson on “The Way Young Lovers Do” — brought the house down, while Malcolm and Mondesir did a fine job of following the template established on the original by Richard Davis and Connie Kay, who had no idea who Morrison was when they turned up for the sessions but found themselves devising a new application for their jazz chops in service of the grumpy little Irishman who barely spoke to them.
Neither Cang nor Gure attempted to imitate Morrison. They just sang the songs with a respect that did not prevent them from injecting their own energy into this hallowed material. I had never imagined that I would want to hear anyone singing “Madame George” other than its creator, but Cang — after successfully calling for quiet as the guitars strummed the intro — delivered it in a way that, like the whole evening, did no disservice to a high-wire masterpiece.
It felt like I was there…thanks, Richard
Thanks for the review. As ever,your description of the music and the background context bring an event to life.
I’d’ve been there in a shot if I’d not already had tickets for something else. I’ve long felt that Astral Weeks was crying out for a Jazz interpretation, simply because it has at its root such a strong Jazz influence – you don’t come much better than Richard Davis and Connie Kay. We should be eternally grateful that, for whatever reasons, Van Morrison was prepared to let them play and not try and arrange them.
All power to Orphy Robinson for taking on the task, and risk, of reinterpreting something that has become hallowed and has so many steadfast admirers. Congratulations to them all for making such a good job of it. I hope the success (looks like a good crowd too) encourages them to perform it again. A recording would be icing on the cake.
Sorry, but this is one of the great overrated records of the late 60s. Bloated nonsense like “Madam George”? It was boring then, and it’s still boring now, but somehow this pretentious nonsense has got itself into various “Top Tennary” lists.
It’s so mad that people are still eulogising this “OK” bit of semi-psychedelia, like it’s something exceptional!! Just like The Smiths – a lot of good stuff, and an awful lot of offal.
Trevor Barre’s comment above proves that art is subjective, in case anyone has ever doubted that subjectivity. Look, I’m as literary as most any musician/music listener (my blog is saturated with mostly poetry accompanied by music), but “Astral Weeks” would pack an impact on many even if (perhaps in Trevor’s case, only if?) it was sung in some language one knows not a word of.
As his career continued, the idea of Van Morrison as a poet faded, and the reading of most of us of his intent with “Astral Weeks” at the time may be faulty–but there is also such a thing as intentional fallacy after all. Perhaps now we better understand that he’s a unusual and effective singer with a stubborn talent, but beautiful accidents happen anyway when they are not prevented.
Anyway, sounds like a great idea and a great concert.
One classical work that I would much prefer to hear after translation into an incomprehensible foreign language is A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett, who was a far better composer than he was a librettist. When it comes to the songs of Van the Man, give me Moondance any day (ideally on the soundtrack of An American Werewolf in London).
Thanks for flagging this up Richard. Like Trevor Barre I’ve never really ‘got’ Astral Weeks. However I’d like to hear Orphy’s version. Maybe it’d make me think differently about the piece. Hope it makes it to a Festival somewhere. As for Van, St Dominic’s Preview is probably my favourite. It mixes the ranginess of Astral Weeks (eg Listen to The Lion) with just enough gritty R&B, but not too much.
No violin then?
Thanks for the good piece here, Richard. I bet Orphy Robinson and the band had some fun exploring those songs. Still, your sentence “No one has ever really explained how the singer, his American musicians and Larry Fallon, the arranger and conductor, and his producer, Lewis Merenstein, came up with the unique blend of idioms that make the album so distinctive.” made me think of this 2008 interview with Merenstein who is no longer planeted here. For those of you interested in the process of making Astral Weeks, it is a fascinating read and story right from the producer’s mouth:
As an aside, the recent AW reissue from Warner Brothers pales in comparison to the Japanese remaster released in 2009. That is where one can hear Richard Davis’ bass in the same room as your CD player and all the highs crisp and clear.
Thanks for the link and the tip!
Excellent interview with Merenstein, his comment about Richard Davis been the soul of the album is very true indeed. Looking at RD’s staggering discography, which is by no means complete, gives some idea of the vast range of stellar recordings he was involved with.
It would be interesting to hear his contemporary Buell Neidlinger’s thoughts about him……
hi richard, jeff the MM office boy here…I remember sitting in the MM review room when Astral Weeks came in for review and you put it on the turntable & it floored us both. Love to re-read your MM review of Astral Weeks if you have a copy still ? Take care …