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There is no shortage of Van Morrison songs on classic rock radio, but they don’t come from “Astral Weeks.” His landmark 1968 album slung meandering melodies over iconoclastic music while thumbing a nose at traditional structure.
So when he and a 14-piece band re-created it during the first of three nights at the sadly underused Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles, the song cycle was allowed to drift, breathe and evolve. And Morrison — notorious for his occasional indifference onstage — appeared to be relishing it.
A rock veteran playing a classic album live in its entirety remains a welcome trend in the iPod Age, and “Astral Weeks” is a prime candidate for the treatment. Recorded in two days with a handful of jazzy session players, its songs have a deliberate randomness; some end abruptly, as if Morrison had been making them up as he went along and just decided he was done.
The album was never a hit with the public — a fact reflected by plenty of empty seats (a $350 top ticket price didn’t help). And he had played it in full during a two-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl in November that spawned a live album and DVD, the latter of which streets May 19.
But “Astral Weeks” is revered by its faithful, and the live setting allowed Morrison to look back on it with the wisdom of years. He tinkered with not only its sound but also the track list. It was as if he felt he was perfecting what he’d started as a 22-year-old four decades earlier.
The show began with a career-spanning hour of songs that ranged from pleasant to stirring but was light on radio hits; even “Moondance” was given an extra-jazzy arrangement. Morrison alternated on piano, sax, guitar and harmonica as the band conjured swing, country, Irish folk, ’40s and ’50s pop and any number of other genres.
All rumpled cool in his shades, hat and leather jacket, the 63-year-old Belfast native unleashed that singular voice that melds so many musical styles. His calculated mumble/slur and trademark phrasing — has he sung any song exactly the same way twice? — frayed into a scat here and a soulful shout there. All the while he quarterbacked the sprawling, ultratight band that encompassed too many instruments to name, including many generally dissociated from rock.
After a break, an offstage voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Astral Weeks.’ ” As it began, several in the audience were heard shushing talkers.
The pliable songs were written for embellishment and experimentation, and the band — including a four-piece string section and two percussionists — went with Morrison’s stream-of-consciousness vocal vibe. The breezy beauty of “Beside You” fairly oozed from the stage. “Sweet Thing” was simply riveting, with flute, fiddle and upright bass making it shimmer as the star sang about the one with the champagne eyes and saint-like smile.
As he readied to wrap the hourlong “Astral Weeks” set with the cherished epic “Madame George,” Morrison broke the fourth wall. He said cryptically and without explanation, “I didn’t really look at this from the point of view of a comedy album before, but … .”
And he trailed off.
It was simply more mystery about “Astral Weeks” and its creator.
Venue: Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles (Thursday, May 7).
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