Tuesday July 3, 2012

Concert review: Al Green

al green at hard rock live

Any article about Al Green written in 2012 is required to mention that the president recently sang one of his songs at a public event. With that out of the way, you’d be surprised at the altitude of the average age at Hard Rock Live last night. For better or worse, the youngs have not gotten the memo on Al.

Which is a shame, because and to answer the question that will be foremost on your mind, the man has still got it. Al belongs to the group of singers, including Antony Hegarty, Tom Waits, and Sinead O’Connor, for whom musical talent and imagination, however great, always seem secondary to the physiology of their throat and lungs. Al Green was given an incredible instrument, and at age 66, it’s still there. He is careful to save his voice, frequently dropping lines in his under-90-minute set, and he occasionally makes oblique references to his age. But when he brings it, which is often, the voice is all still there. The first time you hear it it’s a relief, but that melts away. It’s a thrill. Just as it was for me some 20 years ago discovering his music, and just as it must have been 20 years before that when he was rising to fame, hearing Al sing is sublime and transportive.

Now let’s talk about the thing that was exactly as important as Al’s voice in the magic of his early music, the band. The pairing of Al’s singing with Willie Mitchell’s production resulted in a perfect musical partnership. The Hi-Records band and recording setup is warm, rich, and satisfying in a way that nothing was before or since. (Others recorded with the same house band, but they clearly were saving their best licks for Al.) The drumming of Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes is particularly iconic.

So, how does his current touring band stack up? Well, they’re at a significant disadvantage for having to be playing in a big shoebox-shaped arena and with a sub-optimal mix. That said, they do pretty well. Three horns, bass, guitar, drums, percussion, backup singers (two of whom are Al’s daughters), and two keyboard players (who handle the original piano and organ tracks as well as the string parts). The bass player was particularly good. The keyboard players had few opportunities to shine but held everything together spectacularly. The guitar player had the unenviable position of having to play a couple of Claptonesque solos, which he did not execute with much finesse (and which would had been out of place even done well). But the one truly glaring weakness was the drummer. Who, let us stipulate, had the almost impossible task of matching the parts, sound, and feel of the aforementioned masters Jackson and Grimes. Well, he matched them note for note, but seemed not to even try to replicate the feel, going instead for a laid-back arena hired gun ease. A bummer, but not bad enough to detract too much from the overall effect.

Al is a showman. He comes out and has a pile of long-stemmed roses to pass out to the women in the front rows. He dramatically removes his jacket and throws it away during key moments in the show. He delivers the world’s shortest sermon midway through. And he performs a somewhat silly medley of soul oldies midway though the set, including Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and My Girl). And he shows off his voice, yowling, purring, and scatting almost like it was 1972.

Update: And here’s the New Times’ review of the same show.

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