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Astral Weeks, Wondrous Days

  • Stuart Bailie
  • 7 Jan 08, 10:50 AM

Stuart Bailie.jpgOn Saturday night I watched Duke Special with 23 members of the Inishowen Gospel Choir, with harp and keyboards, xylophone and sundry folk blowing notes across bottlenecks, jug-band style. The song in question was Ballerina by Van Morrison and the aim was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the album Astral Weeks.

dukeastral3.jpgAs hoped, the Duke was in imperial form. He located the pain in the song, letting us know that the dancer can barely deliver the gig. But he also found the deliverance, the idea that great art can rise above commonplace problems. A pivotal lyric, "the show must go on", becomes the theme for the evening, as short-term difficulties are fixed and a genuine sense of wonder is despatched from the stage.

Eight different acts have accepted the challenge of taking a track from the Morrison classic. Brian Houston had opened with ˜Astral Weeks itself, inviting us into the slipstream, between the viaducts of your dreams. Cara Robinson had teased out the soul-jazz dimension of Beside You'™ while Brendan and Declan from The 4 Of Us were wowing over Sweet Thing'™.

At very short notice, Matt McGinn walked in and played Cyprus Avenue'™. We were transfixed by the vision, with the leaves falling one by one and the girl radiant with the rainbow ribbons in her hair. Between songs I was sketching out the history of the record, celebrating the references to Belfast and the amazing cultural confidence that had led a 23 year old artist to write this colossal work.

ursula.jpgThe Winding Stair
seemed at ease with ˜The Way Young Lovers Do™, and those odd time signatures were smartly accomplished. Perhaps the most daunting gig of the night was ˜Madame George, that whirling homage to a figure that plays dominoes in drag. It was Ursula Burns who had accepted the mission and she sat with her harp and realised that child-like vision. Perfect. Finally, it was time for Tom McShane and the fragile adieu of ˜Slim Slow Slider'™.

˜Astral Weeks Revisited™ was a collaboration between the Out To Lunch festival and the Oh Yeah project. There's a gallery of images by Phil O' Kane here. It was an education to hear the different acts responding to the music in their individual ways. It was a pleasure to see the audience so lit up by the idea. And if you don'™t own Astral Weeks by now, you really ought to catch up.


Stu Bailie presents The Late show on Radio Ulster, every Friday from 10pm until midnight. See his playlist here.

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