critic’s pick 299: van morrison, ‘astral weeks’ and ‘his band and the street choir’

astral weeksYou can easily envision the jaws dropping in the Warner Brothers boardroom when Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s heralded 1968 debut for the label, was unveiled. Here was the Irish expatriate that had floored global audiences a year earlier with the radio smash Brown Eyed Girl. But Astral Weeks revealed a songsmith that sang like a Memphis soul renegade prone to gospel-esque fervor and wrote like a Belfast folk mystic. Where was the pop star? Where was the single?

Upon its release, Astral Weeks was dead on arrival commercially, but it created a firestorm of critical praise and set Morrison up for the record that finally established him as a star troubadour – 1970’s Moondance.

Astral Weeks has just been given the grand re-issue treatment – a sparkling new mix, the addition of primo unreleased takes from the original sessions and insightful liner notes that outline how Morrison was even able to make his way to Warners after a recording contract with Bang Records left his then-young career in shambles.

Released concurrently with the record is Morrison’s third Warners album, His Band and the Street Choir, which gets the same royal dust off.

We won’t rehash Astral Week’s greatness here. Instead, we will make note of the four alternate tracks that constitute the bonus material. At the head of class is the initial studio take of Beside You, a blast of Irish romanticism sung with an epic soul stride. Though not quite as unrelenting as the originally released version, it’s close. It is also a riot to hear producer Lewis Merenstein refer to the tune – jokingly, one presumes, during introductory studio banter – as “the single.”

Also of note is an unedited version of the album’s final track, Slim Slow Slider, a stark, folkish vigil that surrounds its mournful core with a deceptively summery (and decidedly jazz like) dressing. This bonus version, however, sports a forgotten coda that turns the tune into a requiem.

his band and the street choirThe vastly more soul and groove inspired His Band and the Street Choir was released in 1970, a mere 10 months after Moondance (which got the reissue treatment last year). It is an altogether looser affair bolstered by the popularity of two radio hits, Domino and Blue Money.

The new edition comes with five alternate takes, most of which don’t vary dramatically from their finalized renditions. A modest exception is I’ve Been Working, which shifts its groove to a jazzier flow more reminiscent of Booker T. and the MGs.

The bottom line, though, is these two splendid records are again in a spotlight where they might hopefully find a newer, younger audience. Eventually, Morrison’s entire Warners catalogue, which stretched into the early’80s, will be reissued. But Astral Weeks and His Band and the Street Choir keep the ball rolling by bridging Morrison’s poetic Irish instincts with richly American rhythm. The resulting sound remains glorious.



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