Paul Chambers went to the Festival of Voice to review Orphy Robinson’s reworking of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
As Orphy Robinson and his ensemble of musicians took to the stage on Sunday evening, they did so with an assuring informality; exchanging smiles and conversation with one another as they took their seats. Robinson opened with a brief introduction to the project, and to the members of the ensemble, before announcing the title of the album opener, ‘Astral Weeks’. As with every song that followed, the mere utterance of the title of each track induced a collective sigh of wonderment from the audience, reflective of the profound emotional importance attached to the album by its admirers.
What followed was a stirring, sensual, often hypnotic journey through the album’s song cycle, invariably shifting in tone between the infectiously light and the deeply moving. As Richard Davis’ bass playing guides so much of the musical direction of the original album, so Dudley Philips gave these arrangements a depth and substance that anchored the ethereal nature of the majority of the instrumentation. Cellist Kate Shortt also provided a vivid counterpoint to the soaring work of flautist Rowland Sutherland, the lightness of Robinson’s vibraphone, and the lyrical delicacy of John Etheridge’s classical guitar flourishes.
While most of the arrangements remained generally faithful to the moods of the original recordings, the centre pieces of ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and ‘Madame George’ meandered from ethereal folk towards the bounce of ska; injecting both songs with an unexpected yet infectious vibrancy. To close the show, the band returned to the album’s title track, which the instrumentalists drove wildly to its climax in an almost euphoric abandon of structure.
Inevitably, any reworking or reimagining of a Van Morrison album will be assessed to a greater or lesser degree on the standard of vocal performance. Whilst not quite touching the heights of the instrumentation, the performances of vocalists Joe Cang, Sahra Gure, and Zara MacFarlane did great service to Morrison’s achievements in Astral Weeks. Notable highlights were Gure’s darkly sensual delivery of ‘Young Lovers Do’, and MacFarlane’s soulful delicacy as she assuredly guided ‘Madame George’ from a lullaby to a ska jam.
What makes the album so spellbinding, vocally, is the sense that, like a great instrumentalist, Morrison approaches each word, even his connectives, as a song in and of itself – not merely as a syntactical bridge. He is immersed completely in the poetry of every word. This, however, can make interpreting the work difficult, particularly so given the obscure and intensely personal nature of the lyrics. Whilst some passages, such as ‘come on fly awhile, straight to my arms little angel child’ have an emotional and literal accessibility to them, other passages in the album, such as ‘sitting on a sofa playing games of chance, with your folded arms and history books’ present a more difficult challenge for interpretation.
This was the only real jar in the performance, as these difficulties of interpretation could sometimes make the singers appear not quite at home in terms of conveying the emotion of a lyric convincingly. This jarring quality wasn’t helped by the fact that the singers were reading the words from a lyric sheet on a music stand, making them seem a little too far ‘outside’ of the song to perform certain lyrics to the height of their poetic potential. Thankfully, the bass and cello exchanges between Philips and Shortt added a dramatic intensity to a number of passages in the arrangements when the agony or ecstasy of the vocal wasn’t at optimum.
All in all, this was an instrumental tour-de-force, paying thoughtful homage to the original album, but also exploring and expanding musical nuances of the piece in a vibrant and celebratory fashion.
Vibraphone and Percussion: Orphy Robinson
Singers: Joe Cang and Sahra Gure, and guest Zara McFarlane
Flute: Rowland Sutherland
Cello: Kate Shortt
Electric Piano: Justina Curtis
Guitarists: Mo Nazam and John Etheridge
Bassist: Dudley Philips
Drummer: Mark Mondesir