Tag Archives: Astral Weeks

Songs About America: “Old Old Woodstock” – Van Morrison

For decades Woodstock, New York has been something of  a safe haven for many musicians.  Famous residents have included Jimi Hendrix, Theonius Monk, and David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and The Band. It’s a secluded area, yet only a two-hour drive to the city.

Away from the busy lifestyle the city breeds, creativity was reaching new heights. The sounds coming out of Woodstock reflected the easy-going lifestyle.  Bob Dylan and The Band’s home-recordings were loose and fun. The Band became equally inspired, and their debut became one of the cornerstones of what would later be called Alt-Country. New life was breathed into American music through this small town and the nature surrounding it.

For these musicians, work and domesticity were one and the same in Woodstock. No one knew this better than Van Morrison who retreated there in the early 1970s.

He was recently married, and enjoying his new bride and young daughter.  The songs he wrote during his time reflected a happiness not normally found in Morrison’s works. It was a time of joy and inspiration.

Like his contemporaries in this upstate hamlet, Morrison looked to the past for musical inspiration. His mix of soul and Irish mysticism has been dubbed “Celtic Soul.”  His lyrics may state closer to his Irish roots, but his voice was more like a white Sam Cooke.  At Woodstock, Morrison adopted country and folk to his already wide ranges of influences.  His original idea was to record an album full of country and western songs that was eventually scrapped.

As a result, Tupelo Honey ends up being one of Morrison’s most relaxed affairs. Gone are the sonic Impressionistic styles of Astral Weeks.  Gone are the grand statements like “Into the Mystic” found on Moondance. Instead, Tupelo Honey is the soundtrack to happiness in the simple life, with touches of country, jazz and soul.

“Old Old Woodstock” is the song that best exemplifies the sounds of upstate New York and Morrison’s carefree attitude with its gentle piano and jazzy rhythms. It starts off slow and unassuming – just like Woodstock itself.  Yet the song pulls you in with its cymbal washes and light snare by Connie Kay. “Feel the breeze blowing through your coat,” Morrison croons.  His voice opens up like trail leading into the forest.

It’s Morrison’s voice that truly makes the song.  His voice is powerful, but restrained.  It’s full of joy, but never lazy.  He whispers through the verses, slowly building in the chorus when he announces that he will “give my child a squeeze”.   His voice is full of love and simplicity.  Nothing else matters in that moment, except this embrace, and the natural surrounding.  He’s found a new beginning both creatively and personally. “Going down to old, old Woodstock,” Morrison sings in the chorus.  “Feel the cool night breeze.”  The musical past of America is conjured up as the bridge opens up to a lengthy jazz-inspired piano break.   Halfway through Morrison lets out an exuberant shout.  His “Hey!” is off the cuff, but is commanding.  If you haven’t listened earlier, you should.  “Listen,” He sings at the beginning of the next verse, which is a repeat of the first verse reinforcing his love for his child.

“Old Old Woodstock” can easily be overlooked as a small ditty.  But like Woodstock itself, the song captures a lifestyle at ease.  Work isn’t a chore when inspiration is right outside your doorstep.

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Top 20 Concerts – The Final 5

5. The Pogues (March 2006, Washington DC – 930 Club)

Is there a better way to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day then going to the see the originators of Irish-folk punk?  Last year was an exception, but since 2006 I’ve been going to see the Pogues every March when they tour the East Coast.  Some years I even went twice.  Shane MacGowan’s vovals might be more warbled than they are on record, but the musicianship of the band more than makes up for it.  The Pogues can easily tear through songs such as “Streams of Whiskey”, “The Sunnyside of the Street”, and “Bottle of Smoke” with reckless abandon that can cause even the squarest of concert-goers to let loose.

Even the slower songs as such as “The Old Main Drag” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes” truly come alive in concert.  “Thousands Are Sailing” a lament about the troubles of Irish immigration becomes a triumph, when the song’s writer Phil Chevron takes over on lead vocals (MacGowan uses this a break to take a piss – I’m not joking).  The fan-favorite “Body of An American” can become something of a bit of bro-mance – when was the last time you saw so many dudes with their arms around each other’s shoulder singing loudly?

4. U2 (June 2001 Washington DC – Verizon Center)

I personally think that the 2005 Vertigo Tour had better performances (saw them twice that year) but on the 2001 Elevation Tour U2 showed not only were they back after the disaster that was Pop, but proved that concerts can be an uplifting and cathartic experience.  U2 perhaps more than any other group, excel at this.

This was the first U2 show I went to, after years of trying.  I had desperately tried to buy tickets several times, only to find Ticketmaster inform me that the show was sold-out.  Less than a week before the show, I read on a U2 fan-site that leftover tickets were being released.  Nervous that I would be locked out again, I quickly logged on.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I snatched up a pair of tickets for my older brother and I.

By June, even the newer songs off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind seemed like classics – particularly “Beautiful Day”, “Kite” and “In a Little While”.  Even the classic warhorses seemed to gain a new life.  Whatever you may think of him, Bono remains one of rock’s greatest frontmen – restless, until he reaches out to every single person in the arena.  It’s rare that a band seems to be so aware of every single person in a 20,000 person arena.  And The Edge’s ice-y guitar chords never sounded so glorious.

One of U2’s strengths has always been to make their old songs, relevant and contemporary.   The bridge of “I Will Follow” linked the past to the present as Bono recalled playing clubs in DC during the group’s early days.  “Bullet the Blue Sky” included an anti-gun rant, and “One” shed light on the troubles in Africa.

I just wish I had seen the post 9/11 shows when U2 songs seemed to be a soundtrack for a wounded nation.

3. Elvis Costello (May 2007, Washington DC – 930 Club)

I should probably pick the Costello show with Allen Touissant.  But, I only remember half of the show, so I don’t think that should count.  As I stated many times during this list, I’m in in love with small venues.  And seeing Elvis Costello, five feet from my face at the 930 Club is about an intimate as you can.  Being this close to one of your heroes is an experience that has evaded me until this show.

It wasn’t just the closeness that made this show great.  Costello was touring behind a collection of his “rock” songs, and as such the show centered around material from his earlier days when he looked liked and act like a pissed off Buddy Holly.  While Costello has mellowed a bit in his songwriting, the performances retained every bite and sting he left on record.  “Lipstick Vogue” was particularly snarling with its length instrumental bridge.  “There’s No Action” was a little tighter than the version found on This Year’s Model, but still seemed on the verge of veering out of control.

“Shabby Doll” was even darker than its studio counterpart, and the live favorite “Watching the Detectives” was given an extended reading, which suited the song’s reggae feeling.  Costello is often known for his love of The Beatles, and the group’s rendition of “Hey Bulldog” was a highlight.

2. Leonard Cohen (May 2009, Columbia MD – Merriweather Post Pavilion)

For a man that doesn’t tour very often, Leonard Cohen put on one hell of a show.  And like Willie Nelson, Cohen also seemed to be enjoying himself through the over 3 hour set which included all of his best known songs, “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne” “Tower of Song” and of course “Hallelujah”.  As for Cohen himself, he seemed a lot more animated than you would expect a 75 year old man to be.  He also seemed extremely humbled to be in the presence of “friends”.

The constant rain didn’t seem to do anything for the atmosphere.  Despite being soaked for most of the night, the show could have gone on for 3 more hours and I wouldn’t have cared.  Unlike Bob Dylan, your chances of seeing Leonard Cohen live are few and far between.

1. Van Morrison (February 2009, New York City – Wamu Theater)

(Note: I couldn’t find a video from the Astral Weeks tour)

A once in a life-time show.  I’m usually not lucky enough to go to “special performances”, but I did manage to get tickets for this sold out show (at a hefty, but extremely worthwhile price).  Like Cohen, Van Morrison doesn’t tour very often but in late 2008 he surprised everybody by not just playing a few shows, but by performing Astral Weeks in its entirety.

For me, Astral Weeks is a life-changing album, and I had no doubt that seeing Morrison perform Astral Weeks live would be a life-changing experience.  Usually, I’m not a fan of concerts where you have to sit down, but this was one concert where sitting back, taking in the music was a perfect suit.  In its original incarnation, Astral Weeks a reflective mood piece – one that commands you to sit down and listen.  And the same went for the show.

The first half of the set contained many standard Van Morrison songs. While he was every professional, Morrison seemed to plow right through the set (“Domino” was particularly short winded).  I wouldn’t suggest that he was actually bored with own material, but it was clear that he really wanted to do the Astral Weeks set.  In contrast to the first set, Astral Weeks was given a slow jazzy treatment that didn’t take on the songs original arrangements, but retained the spirit of the record.  “Slim Slow Slider” was given an expanded ending with Morrison repeatedly chanting, “I start breaking down”.  It’s a song that I never gave enough attention to on the record, but it became one of the highlights for me.

Astral Weeks has always existed in its own plane.  It’s not rock, it’s not folk, and it’s not jazz.  It can be a combination of these things – but it’s also about the passage of time – looking back and seeing the past.  Morrison made many great records since Astral Weeks, but he never made a better one.  And in 2008 and 2009, Morrison finally looked back into the past and finally admitted what everyone already knew – Astral Weeks isn’t just a record, but an experience.

 

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The Waterboys – This Is The Sea

This Is The Sea, like many early R.E.M. and Smiths albums was the soundtrack to my youth.  Being the youngest of 5 kids, my older siblings had fantastic taste in the mid-80’s, and between the ages of 6 and 11 , these were the groups I listened to.  This Is The Sea is nostalgic for me, but in the best possible way.  I can listen to it now, remember sitting in my older brother’s room but still find something new and interesting in it 20 some years later.

Like U2 in the mid-80’s, The Waterboys seemed to be concerned with the big questions in life (love, soul searching, and English politics), and the bombastic music reminiscent of Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound reflects that.  Even from the very beginning of the album, the listener is not left off the hook.  “Well here we are in a special place.  What are you gonna do here?” Mike Scott demands in the first line of “Don’t Bang The Drum”.  Don’t worry, he’s going to tell you throughout the album in case you were wondering.  In its own way, “The Whole Of the Moon” is an 80’s version of Neil Young’s “My My Hey Hey” with its theme of stretching yourself too far.  Instead of opting to burn out instead of fading away, Scott’s target in the song reaches too far, too soon, and too high.  What would otherwise be a a great song, is marred by a string of high-school book poetry containing lines about unicorns, wide oceans, and fairy boats at the climax.

I recently read Scott wanted This Is The Sea to be an 80’s version of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. (The Waterboys would later cover “Sweet Thing” from Astral Weeks on their next album, Fisherman’s Blues. It doesn’t exist its own time-frame like the free-form jazz  of Astral Weeks, or the theme of looking backwards.  This Is The Sea tries too hard sometimes even when its achieves the glory it is looking for on songs such as “Old England”, “Don’t Bang the Drum”, and the title track.  But Scott certainly picked up Morrison’s M.O. of repetition especially on the acoustic “This Is The Sea”.  In “Madame George” Morrison’s on-going lament and good-bye to Madame George only reinforces the sadness of the song.  Scott sings “that was the river, and this is the sea” (with river repeated) and it becomes all too clear the river is indeed long, and you have to take it in order to reach the sea, and in Scott’s world – a new life.

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Astral Weeks Live in NYC – A Year Later

 

 


This weekend last year, I was fortunate enough to see Van Morrison perform Astral Weeks in its entirety.   I can’t even begin to explain how much this album means to me.   Even though Dylan is my favorite artist, I’ve probably listened to Astral Weeks more than any other album.  If Impressionism were put to music, Astral Weeks would be the soundtrack.  Unlike a lot of other albums which seem to fit a certain mood, Astral Weeks absorbs the feeling that you have at the time.  While the theme of the album is about looking back, Morrison created an album that has yet to be equaled in beauty by anyone.  The centerpiece of the album, Madame George (which may or may not be about a drag queen) is a swirling piece of music that sucks you in and never lets go even after repeated listens.  Everytime I listen to the song, I feel I’ve known Madame George and have to dry my eye and say goodbye along with Morrison.

When I first heard about the show, the thought that I would be able to go seemed out of the question.  This was a special show, and getting a ticket would be impossible.  Even having three people try to buy tickets at once seemed like a lost cause.  I managed to get through and get tickets because I exceeded my normal price for tickets.  “Fuck it, I’m going,” I thought.  And my friend, his girlfriend and I did.  

Without a doubt, the show was the best musical performance I’ve seen.  The first half  of the concert contained well known Van Morrison songs and he seemed happy to be there, but he tore through them like his mind was on something else. But by the time we got to Astral Weeks, it was easy to see why.   Performing an album like this must be emotionally draining.  This was no nostalgia act.  Some people complain when artists don’t talk, but Morrison is a professional. Stage banter would have taken away the beauty of such songs as “Sweet Thing” and “Ballerina”.  

The track list was tinkered with, and arrangements were changed a bit, but it was still Astral Weeks.  It retained the free-jazz spirit of the original album and Morrison’s voice still sounded as great as it always has.  When “Madame George” and Morrison sang “say goodbye to Madame George” – it wasn’t just the draq queen we were saying goodbye to.  We were saying goodbye to the idea that an album could mean this much to people and that music of this caliber is also gone as well.  

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