Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Van Morrison; Liz Carroll and John Doyle

And here you thought that last week's release of U2's No Line on the Horizon was the extent of this month's Irish music invasion. Not with St. Patrick's Day just around the corner and these similarly "new" recordings, along with their very different links to Irish music's pop and past.

Van Morrison leads the pack with a live recording of his seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks, cut last year at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Veteran artists revisiting their early works as a performance piece isn't a novel concept. But for Morrison, who has never been anything akin to a nostalgia act, this rite is a very much a curiosity. Especially since little from Astral Weeks has remained in Morrison's concert repertoire over the years.

Not surprisingly, the new versions come off — vocally, at least — a little curmudgeonly. Morrison is less the charmed mystic this time and more the restless earthbound spirit hungry for release, just as he has been on many of his finer records. But my, that Celtic muse, aged though it might be, takes flight during the wondrous Sweet Thing while The Way Young Lovers Do (easily the new Astral Weeks' highlight) still possesses profound and jazzy cool, summery drama and a sense of desperation that Morrison places very much in motion.

The song order from the original recording is juggled as well. Madame George, a song of youthful awakening and farewell, is now the finale. To be honest, the spiritual fire and focus that Morrison packs into 1972's Listen to the Lion and the truly bizarre call-and-response "mystic church" recitation of 1980's Common One — served up here as bonus encore tunes — rival much of the Astral Weeks performance. But it's all pretty wild stuff. No one in the pop world plays with transcendental fire while re-examining one's artistic past quite like Morrison on this flawed but fascinating concert document.

A far more modest Irish affair comes to us courtesy of Dublin-born guitarist John Doyle, an alumnus of the new generation Celtic band Solas, and Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll of Cherish the Ladies. Their second album of duets, Double Play, often possesses the intimacy and drive of a pub session. Carroll and Doyle lock horns early on during the medley of The Chandelier and Anne Lacey's, with Carroll firmly in the freewheeling driver's seat and Doyle's often-percussive support setting a spirited pace.

There also is a nod to Irish music tradition in Lament for Tommy Makem, a lovely, rustic but intuitive duet exchange. Doyle adds light, conversational vocals that recall the great folk stylist Bert Jansch to several songs, including Ed Pickford's mining anthem A Pound a Week Rise, a song popularized decades ago by Scottish singer Dick Gaughan. Mostly though, Double Play sings with quiet, conversational dialogues of guitar and fiddle. Morrison might still wrestle with enlightenment on his revisit to Astral Weeks, but on Double Play, Carroll and Doyle sound as if they've found it.