Al Green & Charles Bradley

Molly and I saw Al Green and Charles Bradley play in New York a couple of weeks ago.  This marks the fourth time I’ve seen Charles Bradley, always as an opening act: twice opening for label mate Sharon Jones, once for the like-minded singer Lee Fields, and now for Al Green.   Bradley has a great back story – he was a James Brown impersonator who finally hooked up with the Daptone folks (a Brooklyn-based soul, funk, and afrobeat label) and started recording his own material.  He also has a prodigious set of pipes and some pretty great dance moves/ hair for someone quickly heading north of sixty.

Much of Bradley’s debut album, No Time For Dreaming, focused on traditional soul ballads that allowed Bradley to showcase his scream – after all, he is known these days as “the screamin’ eagle of soul.”  But 60s southern-inflected soul ballads can be a tough medium to excel in.  Many great singers, male and female (including this show’s headlining act), have put their stamp on this type of music, and you need more than just a good voice to pull it off.  Bradley’s got the voice, but he doesn’t always have that extra something something, and No Time For Dreaming had a lot of powerful vocals, but it didn’t always grab you.  There were always older singers nagging at the back of my mind, except during “The World Is Going Up In Flames.” This was one of the earliest tracks Bradley did with Daptone, and it’s easily his best.  It’s not another ballad; powerful, driving, and visceral, it quickly gets your attention and refuses to let you look away.

The three times I’ve seen “The World Is Going Up In Flames” performed live it’s been even better, because the bass, keyboard, and horn groove is augmented by some fearsome guitar licks, usually courtesy of Tommy “TNT” Brenneck, an always sharply-attired, extremely talented guitarist.  (He used to be the lead player for Sharon Jones’ Dap Kings, though he’s left them now; he also plays with the Budos Band, the Menahan Street Band, Lee Fields, and Bradley’s current band.)  But this time Bradley and co. didn’t get off to a great start, and their sound mix was poor — during “The World Is Going Up In Flames,” you could hardly hear the guitar playing. Things weren’t helped by the backing vocalists, a shabbily dressed threesome of older gentleman who occasionally wandered out from backstage to yell hoarsely into a microphone that wasn’t always on. But the show got better as it went, and Bradley’s strangely precise dancing, wild screams, and his shirt (shiny and completely unbuttoned; it may not even have had buttons to start with) were hard to resist.

After Bradley came the main attraction, the Reverend Al Green.  Al Green recorded for Memphis’ Hi Records, starting in the late 60s.  His early work was fairly gritty and funky, in the classic southern late-60s fashion (listen to a song like “Driving Wheel”), but working with producer Willie Mitchell and a number of talented musicians (including the three Hodges brothers and Al Jackson, who played drums on many Stax records), he soon developed a completely different, totally transfixing sound.

The first real Al Green song was also his first big hit, “I’m So Tired Of Being Alone,” off Gets Next To You, his third album, from 1971.  It combined the polish and meticulous arrangements that were popular in Motown with the unparalleled emotional power of southern soul.  It was lush and precise but not extravagant like Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, or Isaac Hayes; totally heartfelt, but oh-so-pretty in a way that most southern R&B — which maintained an explicit association with the fiery grit of the blues — was not.  The groove was soft but insistent, with light, ticking drums, liquid guitar lines and stabbing horns, but it never deigned to swing and strut like the stuff out of Detroit.  And when Green sang ballads, they weren’t rough, tear-the-door-down affairs like they were for Otis Redding; they were gently tragic, perfectly melancholy.   Redding was going to die, but Green was just wasting away, hoping for a smile, or maybe a look.  The music made the overt come-ons of Marvin Gaye seem almost crass — Green was sexual and spiritual all at once, seductive of course but never predatory, and his reverential ache was unique .

Starting with 1972’s Lets Stay Together and continuing through 1977’s Belle album, Al Green hardly put out a bad song (the string of four albums he put out in just two years, starting with Lets Stay Together and ending with 1973’s Livin’ For You, is particularly unimpeachable).  He sang wonderful originals and redefined songs that he covered – check out his version of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”  Green was also a master of economy.  There aren’t that many great albums that are less than 35 minutes in length – probably a couple early Beatles’ records, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Miles Davis’s Blue Moods, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, most of Otis Redding’s albums, and a few soul masterpieces from people like Ann Peebles, Wilson Pickett, and Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions.  It’s extremely difficult to be concise and excellent.  Green never had a problem with this. Let’s Stay Together, I’m Still In Love With You, and Call Me are all around 32 or 33 minutes.  Green does what he wants to do, efficiently and impeccably, and then he leaves.

Famously, Green had some women troubles – when you look like he did and sing like he does, how could you not? — that turned him towards the church, and he stopped making secular music until the last decade or so.  Now he is 65 years old, and not quite the sex panther of his younger days.  Still, his voice is instantly recognizable, and he can hold high notes for incredible periods of time.  His band (two drummers, three horn players, four back-up singers, guitar, bass, and two keyboardists) played muscularly, and they stuck with up-tempo tracks from his catalogue of hits, almost everything from the 1971 – 1974 period:  “Here I Am Come And Take Me,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Take Me To The River,” “Love And Happiness,” “I Can’t Get Next To You” (originally a Temptations tune that he covered with great success), “Call Me,” and “Tired Of Being Alone.”  It was a crack band with a great singer playing great songs, so that all went over well.

But Al Green was never about muscularity, at least not on recording (I can’t speak to his live performances from the 70s, though I really wish that I could).  Good as those powerful uptempo tracks were, the most stunning moments of the show were when Green worked with his ballads in gentler arrangements, or where the band left Green to sing by himself for a moment. He started “I’m Still In Love With You,” with a mesmerizing solo vocal introduction.  “How Do You Mend A Broken Heart,” “Simply Beautiful,” and “For The Good Times” were spare and gorgeous.  Green didn’t need to scream or crack like Bradley, he had everyone following each subtle change in his voice.

When you’re as good as Al Green is, it’s easy for a fan to nitpick. The performance was great, and even his unnecessary medley of classic soul hits – “My Girl,” “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” – had charm to it, though a man with so many superb songs of his own has no need to sing the songs of others.  Every time he cracked a smile, sang a note, or handed a rose to a woman in the front row, everyone was enthralled. Molly and I walked home after the show, and I whistled crappy renditions of Green tunes most of the way.

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