Graham Reid | | 3 min read
By recent accounts Van Morrison isn't quite as grumpy as he once was. It's relative of course; when sent to interview him in the late Eighties, Spike Milligan surprised Morrison by wearing a large pink penis nose and managed to get a laugh.
But the subsequent interview was a monosyllabic affair for the most part with Milligan trying his best to draw out the notoriously grumpy Irishman.
No artist is obliged to be chatty and affable, but you do wonder what Morrison has had to be so bitter about all these decades.
Most biographies show him as a sullen boy who grew into an angry young man, especially when he discovered he was being financially ripped off when his solo career -- after his Belfast rhythm'n'blues band Them -- began in earnest.
He still sings about cheating managers and bastard record companies (check Going Down to Monte Carlo on his Born to Sing/No Plan B album of three years ago) but in interviews he seems a little more forthcoming.
But as we say, he's a musician and that's where we should turn our attention. And now — after the expanded edition of his ever-popular Moondance album from '70 – comes the expanded editions of two more from that period, the classic Astral Weeks (of '68) and His Band and the Street Choir (released just eight months after Moondance).
That excellent expanded Moondance whet the appetite for the these two new releases because this was a period where Morrison was a peak: On Astral Weeks he had a band of mostly jazz musicians (including drummer Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Morrison delivered some of his finest soul vocals in a song cycle which is not just enjoyable but rewards close analysis.
His unique jazz-folk sound on the 10 minute Madame George remains a delightful mystery to this day.
Often “classic” albums undergo some critical drubbing by subsequent generations (note how the Beatles' Sgt Peppers has slipped well down any best-of list these days) but Astral Weeks remains a glorious cornerstone of any sensible music collection.
Even when Melody Maker did a 30 years of pop edition in '97, Astral Weeks was there, the writer describing it as “an attempt to reach into the banks of memory, an evocation of the people and the atmosphere of another time, another place. Its songs, drifting reflections on blues phrases, folk melodies, fragrant jazz and orchestral settings . . .”
For Moondance he brought in more horns to punch up the soul end even more, and that spilled over onto His Band and The Street Choir, even though his original intention had been to record with just a guitar and choir.
When that didn't work out he loosened up, took his eyes of the mystical and presented some thoroughly enjoyable songs like Domino, the Elton-like ballad Crazy Face, the swinging Give Me a Kiss and the energetic I've Been Working. That's a powerful start to an album which later included the heartfelt I'll Be Your Lover Too and the soul-infused If I Ever Needed Someone.
There's a touch more blues in the mix also, and Morrison let go some spontaneous whoops and shouts to propel things. The expanded edition includes five different takes of various songs including a stripped down Give Me A Kiss.
When you hear something as moving as that — and the four alternate takes on Astral Weeks which include Madame George as well as longer versions of Ballerina and Slim Slow Slider, the latter with Morrison singing "Glory be to Him" over and over at the end – you realise Morrison could discard what others would consider a career highpoint.
These two remastered Morrison albums — expanded or not, they are available in their original versions — deserve a place in your listening.
But if Morrison is new to you then also check out the new double CD Essential Van Morrison.
It scoops up 37 songs from across his long career (it opens with the garageband classic Gloria by Them).
It doesn't include too many from Astral Weeks or Street Choir so those pleasure still await if you want to go further.
During this period Van Morrison was exploring the mystical and his dancing soul with equal ease and accomplishment.
These albums will make you feel good even today . . . you just wish the music had made Van feel that way too.
There are a considerable number of Van Morrison reviews and overviews at Elsewhere here.