For a few years now, it’s been trendy for musicians to perform live versions of entire albums from their back catalogues. Bruce Springsteen was in Chicago recently, playing all of “Born to Run.” And last Tuesday night (Sept. 29), it was Van Morrison’s turn. Playing to a sold-out Chicago Theatre, Morrison performed every song from his 1968 album “Astral Weeks.” Although it’s praised by many critics as one of the best records of all time, “Astral Weeks” is not exactly filled with hits. If Morrison had wanted to please audiences with a bunch of radio hits, he probably would have chosen to do his 1970 album “Moondance.” Instead, he played the strange half-jazz, half-orchestral vamps of “Astral Weeks,” the album that established his reputation as a vocalist who can mumble, moan and holler with a sort of mystical intensity.
A lot of the music on the original “Astral Weeks” felt like it was improvised. The musicians sounded as if they were feeling their way into the songs, tiptoeing around Morrison’s dominating voice. So it was no surprise that Tuesday night’s performance was not a note-for-note duplication of the record. In fact, Morrison even juggled the order of songs. Instead of closing the suite with “Slim Slow Slider,” he played that song third and moved “Madame George” into the final slot.
Morrison was in fine voice Tuesday, delivering the songs in his distinctive throaty tones. Morrison’s a highly emotive singer, wringing so much feeling out of every note, and yet he never visibly demonstrates much passion onstage. Hiding his eyes behind dark glasses and wearing a hat, Morrison shows little flair for showmanship, other than occasionally rearing back his head when he’s singing an especially demanding note. He never says a word to the audience. The only time he said anything audible on Tuesday was when he wanted more volume in his monitor and he barked, “Turn it up!” to someone off in the curtains.
Morrison simply isn’t the kind of performer who acts out the drama of his songs onstage, but that doesn’t mean his singing is any less impressive. He sang the tunes from “Astral Weeks” with what seemed like fresh emotion, while his nine-piece band played trembling arrangements similar, but not identical, to those on the record.
“Astral Weeks” (which Morrison also released recently on a live CD) was the second half of Tuesday’s concert. Earlier in the night, he sang a couple of his best-known hits, “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Have I Told You Lately,” along with several more obscure songs from his later albums. Morrison and his band sounded at time like lounge lizards, but these talented musicians were versatile, easily shifting into blues, folk or garage rock.
When the “Astral Weeks” section of the concert came to an end, Morrison picked up a harmonica and launched into the extended solo that opens “Mystic Eyes,” a song he did in the mid-’60s with his original rock band, Them. A couple of minutes later, “Mystic Eyes” slid right into Them’s biggest hit, “Gloria.” Morrison and his musicians spelled out the song’s title with those famous call-and-response vocals, and the theater came alive.
And then Morrison was gone. Almost as soon as he’d left the stage, the house lights in the Chicago Theatre came on. It was clear that Morrison was going to follow his usual pattern of not doing an encore. It was also clear from the applause that his fans would have liked another song. But that’s the thing about seeing a Van Morrison concert: You know he’s not going to give you everything you want, but what you do get from him is still pretty great.