Getting Religion With Al Green

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Al Green in action at Radio City Music Hall (Photo by Dave Gil de Rubio)

Rightfully referred to as “The Greatest Living Soul Singer,” Al Green carries that mantle forward now that the likes of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Bobby Womack, Solomon Burke, Teddy Pendergrass and Ben E. King have shuffled off this mortal coil since the millennium kicked off. Since that time, Green has kept a low profile, releasing only three studio albums since 2000. This current spate of tour dates represents the Arkansas native’s first road jaunt in more than seven years. Having become an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis back in 1976, the good Reverend has spent a significant part of the latter part of his career preaching the word of God. It’s with this kind of zeal that he turned Radio City Music Hall into a spiritual revival over the course of two nights.

Playing before an interracial audience that skewed older, Green emerged sporting a tuxedo and a large grin as his 13-member-strong group of musicians pumped up a significant groove. The 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer opened with “It Ain’t No Fun to Me,” off of 1972’s seminal Let’s Stay Together. As someone whose music has been the soundtrack for plenty of romantic interludes, Green had a table on the side laden down with single-stem roses that he wound up handing out to a slew of enthusiastic female fans in the front row throughout the night.

Al Green circa 2010 (Photo by John Mathew Smith/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Not unlike other artists like Little Richard and Sam Cooke, Green grappled with the push and pull of the secular versus the spiritual. While his early ’70s collaborations with late producer Willie Mitchell made Green the heir apparent to Cooke and Otis Redding, his embrace of religion emanated throughout the evening, whether he was calling out to the crowd for a hearty “Amen” or the extreme humility he showed when he thanked Jesus for allowing him to go on. Among the more religious numbers Green trotted out were “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” from the 1987 gospel album Soul Survivor, in which Green beseeched the crowd with couplets like, “Don’t let this world mislead you/Don’t you ever go astray/Trust in God’s word and believe it/Cause it’ll never pass away” and a goosebump-inducing version of “Amazing Grace” that found Green stripping down to his vest and leading what became a mini revival in the heart of Manhattan.

Still possessing that inimitable falsetto, Green’s gift was readily flashed, whether it was amid the syncopated greatness of “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” or the silky smoothness of “Let’s Stay Together” (although the addition of two male dancers was more a distraction than anything). One of the vocalist’s greatest traits was an ability to pick stellar material and bring it to an otherworldly level. So it went on this night, when Green dusted off gems by Kris Kristofferson and the Bee Gees. In this case, the former’s “For the Good Times,” which originally appeared on 1972’s I’m Still In Love With You) featured quite a bit of testifying by Green, juxtaposed by a trio of female back-up singers. And then there was a reading of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?,” echoed with the kind of pain and loss that brothers Barry and Robin Gibb meant for the song to have in the first place.

One of the more surprising parts of the show was the extra weight Green was carrying. While his singing never faltered, Green’s performance was affected, whether it was the brevity of a set that was only about a dozen tunes long, the need to periodically sit down in the middle of a song, or the fact that he plunked a major medley in the middle of his set. And while it was a treat to hear his take on songs like Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” and The Stylistics’ “You Are Everything,” hearing snippets of these songs along with tunes by the Four Tops and Temptations wound up being more of an unsatisfying tease than the kind of musical experience full versions of these songs would have offered.

That said, Green finished strong, tucking into stellar readings of “I’m Still in Love With You,” closer “Love and Happiness” and his self-proclaimed favorite song to sing live, the mournful and poignant “Tired of Being Alone,” albeit with no encore.

Green is said to be heading back into the studio after this string of dates. Here’s hoping he returns with more music and a chance to hear him sing for a longer stretch of time while giving his fans the gift of his talents.

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