- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

Financially speaking, 1968 was a hard year for Van Morrison. “Brown Eyed Girl,” the songwriter’s first single as a solo artist, had become an international hit in 1967, yet a skewed record contract kept Mr. Morrison from receiving any royalty payments. Meanwhile, his label continued to push for more pop-oriented music, hoping to capitalize on the single’s success.

When the founder of Bang Records died unexpectedly, Mr. Morrison managed to extricate himself from the contract that had all but bankrupted him. A partnership with Warner Bros followed, allowing greater control of his own music but little money upfront. Virtually penniless, Mr. Morrison began recording a new album in September.

“The lack of support and money did force me to do the record lean in ‘68,” Mr. Morrison recalls, “but it turns out that was really to my benefit. I learned that to make a solid record, one does not have to have all the producers, bells and whistles. You just have to have the ability, the patience, the ear and the soul. If you can sing, and if you write a solid song, all you need is a microphone.”

Although Mr. Morrison eventually would insist on producing his own albums, producer Lewis Merenstein was brought aboard to helm the 1968 recording sessions. “I only remember him going for sandwiches,” says Mr. Morrison, who nonetheless allowed Mr. Merenstein to assemble a cast of veteran jazz musicians for the project. Bassist Richard Davis, guitarist Jay Berliner and drummer Connie Kay were among those recruited, and their jazz training lent an improvised, impressionistic elegance to the album. Within one month, “Astral Weeks” was complete.

Although “Astral Weeks” never matched the sales of its predecessor, few albums have better stood the test of time. The music is simultaneously baffling and beautiful, mixing uncanny lyrics with an elastic mix of soul, jazz, Celtic folk and classical tropes. Four decades later, “Astral Weeks” continues to yield new discoveries with each listen.

Mr. Morrison says the record could have been better, however.

“I have just started listening to some old albums of mine, and I wish I would have never let someone else ever touch my songs in post-production,” he says. Recalling how his songs were “butchered and killed” in post-production, he vows, “I will never use a producer for post-production ever again; I like real, and I like resonance, and that stuff kills it.”

To celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary — and to revive those elements that had been lost during production — Mr. Morrison has chosen to revisit the songs in concert. “Astral Weeks” rarely has been played live because Mr. Morrison refused to perform the material without proper instrumentation. Accordingly, a new cast of jazz musicians was assembled in time for two highly publicized concerts in Los Angeles.

Despite the challenging nature of “Astral Weeks,” Mr. Morrison only scheduled one rehearsal before opening night.

“I did not prepare,” he says. “I did not want to touch [the music] until it was time for me to hit the stage, really. We had one rehearsal, and in my estimation, it was not hot. The songs came alive in a whole new way [in concert], though. Forty years later, and I just let it rip as if it was brand new. People are saying that I made it new, which I appreciate tremendously. They noticed!” The concerts were unanimously popular, prompting the release of a live album, “Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl” as well as the launch of a national tour. Dubbed Astral Weeks Live, the tour has sold out multiple venues across the country, bringing more attention to one of the industry’s most reluctant celebrities.

“I love music, I hate fame,” Mr. Morrison says. “Fame draws in parasites and fools. I love singing, though, and this has been the irony of me doing what I do. It’s difficult to reconcile the two, so I just keep doing what I do … reluctantly.” For all his discomfort on the red carpet, Mr. Morrison maintains a confident, commanding presence onstage. “Each performance of ‘Astral Weeks 2009’ has tended to have its own power and its own magic, and luckily it evolves into something different than the time before, in a good and surprising way each time. With solid songs, this is what can happen.”

Van Morrison performs at DAR Constitution Hall on Friday. Tickets start at $95.

Bring on the Noisettes

“To get a really distinctive sound in current pop music is so rare,” muses Shingai Shoniwa, bass player and lead vocalist of the Noisettes.

“A lot of our contemporaries are in bands that have four guys who look the same, dress the same and listen to the same albums,” she says. “There’s only so far those bands can go, because they’re basically closing doors on any outside influences. At the end of the day, the best kind of pop music actually breaks down boundaries and walls. It doesn’t create them.” Like a modern-day equivalent of Prince & the Revolution, the Noisettes construct songs that are as eclectic as the group’s composition. The British trio is both biracial and coed, with Miss Shoniwa serving as the fashionable, worldly leader of the bunch. She’s a rare presence in the music industry, a London resident whose street-smart swagger is tempered by the elegance of a jazz singer.

“Wild Young Hearts,” the band’s second album, stirs traces of Motown, soul, disco and punk into the same melting pot. The record’s polish sets it apart from its predecessor, “What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?” which introduced the Noisettes as a gritty garage-rock outfit with a Billie Holiday fetish. Yet despite its glossy texture, “Wild Young Hearts” pushes a wide range of boundaries during its 11 tracks.

“We were listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac, some Talk Talk and a bunch of really slick, overly produced hip-hop and American R&B records,” says the singer, who credits such influences for fueling the Noisettes’ genre-bending sound.

After releasing “What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?” in 2006, the band spent more than two years on the road, bouncing from country to country in support of the record. The experience helped widen the Noisettes’ audience, but it also required the musicians to pause and regain their bearings.

“Changing your environment is really important,” Miss Shoniwa explains. “We spent a large amount of time in the van and in rock clubs. A lot of bands spend a year on the road and then go straight into the studio, where they end up writing about being on the road. That can be fun, but only other people in bands can identify with it.” The Noisettes took a different approach. Instead of rushing into the recording studio, they drove through the countryside and set up shop in a number of small, rural households with minimal electricity. They wrote music without amplifiers or microphones. Those songs were expanded later into cinematic pieces once the trio had amassed enough material to start recording.

As a singer, Miss Shoniwa relished the chance to train her voice atop different instruments. “I was so desperate to be that kid in the candy shop,” she says. “I would run around the studio and say, ‘Let’s have strings, let’s have harmonium, let’s have my baby brother singing in a choir!’ Our friend Steve ended up playing honky-tonk piano on several tracks. If you have the opportunity to make a second record in a studio, why do exactly what you did last time? That would bore me to distraction.” “Wild Young Hearts” is already popular in the United Kingdom, where two of the album’s tracks have become top 20 hits. The Noisettes currently are focused on American audiences, however, having launched a brief stateside tour earlier this summer.

The Noisettes’ final U.S. show will be held at the Rock and Roll Hotel on Friday. Tickets for the 8:30 p.m. performance are $10.

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