HuffPost Reviews: Van Morrison -- Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl / Asa -- Asa

VAN MORRISON - Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl

When Van Morrison's essential work, Astral Weeks, hit the stores in 1968, it instantly was revered by critics and musicians around the world. It influenced future cultural icons such as Bono and especially, Bruce Springsteen, whose "Incident on 57th Street," "New York City Serenade," and virtually all of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. sounded like unintended tributes to the Celtic rocker. Named Rolling Stone's nineteenth best album of all time in 2003, it was Morrison's first long player for Warner Bros. Records, and his second solo album post his tenure with the rock group Them (his first being T.B. Sheets for Bang Records). Even though the LP's most "commercial" recording, "Sweet Thing," initially was perceived as its focus track, Astral Weeks featured no hit singles, sales were not impressive (it finally having turned "gold" by 2001), and to new listeners raised on pop radio, it was a challenging amalgam of folky-blues, jazz, northern soul, and singer-songwriter-styled lyrics. But historically, the LP was released at just the right time since, like the substances that supposedly were expanding the minds of a generation, this album did the same.

Apparently, expansion was on Morrison's mind during the landmark album's creative process that reached beyond mundane arrangements and traditional recording routines. Lots of musical freedom was encouraged during the sessions that, basically, were well-mapped jams. In one of his 2008 interviews, the artist recalled that Astral Weeks' material was "from another sort of place" (fyi, his first take on "Madame George" was included on T.B. Sheets). He revealed how the album's "poetry and mythical musings" sprung from his imagination in a unique way, saying, "The songs were somewhat channeled works...that is why I called it 'Astral Weeks,'"--its title an obvious shoutout to the astral plane. As far as it having been one of the great "concept" albums, Astral Weeks was considered one, though it really shouldn't have been stereotyped as merely that. Regardless of the original LP's side splits as "In The Beginning" and "Afterwards" (probably the result of vinyl's timing issues), it otherwise ignored symmetry and any intentional travel from points "a" to "z" as its musical journeys and stream of consciousness lyrics rejected normal structure. Characters, subject matter, lovers, and landscapes migrated throughout the work, often, at the most random of moments, in order to prove an emotional, not intellectual point. Springsteen took a fraction of this approach and applied it to his first two albums, amazing us in the process. However, Morrison remains the master of his transcendental craft to this day, using it most effectively during his live performances.

That brings us to Morrison's early November 2008 concerts featuring his new take on that seminal album. The CD Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl documents his album's initial vision with a slight makeover, it now taking creative license by extending song titles and tweaking the original sequence. (Morrison felt some sequence tweaks, such as concluding with "Madame George," were now more appropriate.) Originally written and sung from a young man's more innocent perspective, Astral Weeks' live revisit mostly benefits from the forty years of character lines and some graying that Morrison's reinterpretation now brings to it. From the moment he sings the title track's lyrics, "To lay me down, in silence easy, to be born again," you get the feeling it's not just the singer's implied transformation that's being announced, but Astral Weeks itself.

Through it all, Morrison is where he wants to be, onstage and in Heaven, singing, playing sax, guitar, and harmonica. The band's camaraderie is communicated musically, especially between Morrison and Astral's original guitarist, Jay Berliner. There are many featured solos and licks, and there's even some playful overacting, such as on "Cyprus Avenue"'s lines, "...and my t-t-t-t-tongue gets tied every time I try to s-s-s-s-speak." Morrison's new sequence works just fine, like how "Sweet Thing" leads into "The Way Young Lovers Do" ("Moondance"'s wilder cousin). His adding the bonus tracks "Listen to the Lion" from St. Dominic's Preview, and "Common One" (added from the show's earlier non-Astral set) don't detract, but instead, strangely feel like appropriate epilogues. In "...Lion," Morrison pumps his harp for a primal sound that's both humorous and masculine, and "Common..." with its echoed vocal replies, almost serves as the encore and one last reminder that this singer's got chops.

Almost as important as the performances, there is a real intimacy heard on this CD, perhaps from its players being recorded amidst tightly compacted stage gear and stacked instruments, giving it an old time Bleecker Street music shop vibe. And with a basic reverence for the original record, this live Astral's arrangements allow for musicians to add new layers of strata through jams, while acknowledging forty years has passed since the original was slated. Reportedly, Van Morrison wasn't aware of the anniversary when he thought up the live version, and in an interview with entertainment guru, David Wild, he said, "I had always wanted to do these songs live with orchestration. I thought I should probably get to it now--it's time."

1. Astral Weeks / I Believe I've Transcended
2. Beside You
3. Slim Slow Slider / I Start Breaking Down
4. Sweet Thing
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Cyprus Avenue / You Came Walking Down
7. Ballerina
8. Madame George
9. Listen To The Lion / The Lion Speaks
10. Common One

ASA - Asa

Asa's American release of her self-titled album will, hopefully, introduce another world famous talent into the US market and lexicon. Alternately claiming Nigerian and French heritage due to her upbringing, Asa (pronounced "ah-sha") has collected international raves along with huge initial success from tracks such as "Jailer" and "Fire on the Mountain," the album already hitting No. 1 in France and selling over 100,000 copies. She was influenced by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Sunny Ade, and Lauryn Hill, and made her mark in England by guesting on Jools Holland's series, appearing on the cover of Music Week, and being the spotlight artist on Good Morning, Sunday on BBC2 while having "record of the week" on BBC1 Xtra's Mista Jam Show. In the US, NPR pushed "Jailer" on All Songs Considered, and her debut is being distributed by Downtown Records' new imprint, Mercer St. Records. Her performances include opening for acts like Akon, John Legend, Beyonce, and Snoop Dogg.

With what sounds like a gathering of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff reggae, Erika Badu phrasings, Joan Armatrading and Suzanne Vega acoustic guitar strumming, and Tracy Chapman lyrical sensibilities, the album Asa immediately grabs you and respectfully requests you pay attention. Unlike pleasant-sounding artists that are more interested in soothing than serving, Asa writes and records songs such as "Jailer," with alert lyrics like "Am in chains, you're in chains too," and that attitude moves righteously into her socially-conscious "360" that says, "We live in yesterday, many today waste away, but nevertheless, it's never late." The song also addresses the concept of change, one this country is just now getting familiar with. With a soundscape containing intelligent percussion, Hammond organ, reggae-infused bass, and flutes by Magic Malik, Asa also features love songs filled with unique melodies and slightly barb-wired messages, though she's at her best with aggressive subject matter like that of "Fire on the Mountain." "I wake up in the morning, tell you what I see on my TV screen, I see the blood of an innocent child, and everybody's watching." Brutal, but real. She also performs Nigerian language songs like her "Eye Adaba" whose translation of "I see doves in the sky" again brings home the politics within a prayer for peace. Her press release reads, "Asa crafts protest music that calls not only for change in a society as a whole, but for personal change," though the listening experience is intoxicating, not at all indoctrinating.

Last night, Asa performed a lively set at Hollywood's Hotel Café, singing and playing acoustic guitar with band mates Janet Nwose on vocals, and Nicolas Mollard on guitar/vocals. She covered her most popular international recordings plus dug deeper into her album by playing her originals "No One Knows," "Bibanke," "Peace," and "Subway." This performance marks her first significant Los Angeles appearance in support of her Mercer Street, US debut.

The below are here internationally-acclaimed videos for the singles "Jailer" and "Fire on the Mountain."