When Van Morrison sings, “I believe I’ve transcended,” at the end of “Astral Weeks” — the first song in this full 2008 recital of his historic album of the same name — it is in a warm, grateful growl remarkably like that of the younger man who made the 1968 studio LP. Astral Weeks was Morrison’s first step toward transcendence as a singer-songwriter, a radical turn away from the AM-radio success of his 1967 hit “Brown Eyed Girl.” The album is still like nothing else in rock, a quiet union of breathtaking opposites: Morrison’s soul-trance reflections on his early life in Belfast and the tension of the chamber-jazz arrangements.
The ruminative force of Morrison’s singing on Weeks was not that far from his early hard-blues attack in the band Them. In the live Astral Weeks, performed with a big band that reproduces the gentle touch of the ’68 session group, Morrison brings out those blues more emphatically — his vocal-and-harp break in “Sweet Thing” is like a hot wind of Little Walter. Morrison has also re-sequenced the album for concert effect, ending with the extended hypnosis of “Madame George.” The 1968 LP closes with the weightless “Slim Slow Slider” — just acoustic bass and splashes of tone around Morrison’s heated whisper. Here the song slips into a John Lee Hooker-like groove, and while I prefer the original, the change is an uplifting surprise. Transcendence is always a work in progress; the eight songs on Astral Weeks are still up to the task.