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Al Green's biggest hit is called "Let's Stay Together," but for his latest long-player, the famed Memphis soul singer declined to take his own advice. After reuniting earlier this decade with producer Willie Mitchell, the architect of his early-'70s classics, Green made Lay It Down (due out May 27) with two new jacks from Planet Rap: James Poyser (who's worked with Common, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu) and Roots mastermind Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. Still, don't expect a hip-hop makeover of Green's old material.
"I don't know how to update something that's already been done," Green says. "We was gonna recut 'You Ought to Be With Me' in 1987, and we found out real fast that you need to leave that alone. That song whupped our behind like we had just stole something!" Instead of retrofitting Green's music, the producers tried to "stay true to this sound that Ahmir and I have taken so many cues from," says Poyser. "Al's old records are a huge part of what Ahmir and I do."
Indeed, despite guest appearances by John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, and Corinne Bailey Rae, Lay It Down resembles one of Green's earlier albums. "It's not a huge departure," says Neal Sugarman of the Dap-Kings Horns. (They served as Green's backing band alongside Thompson, Poyser, guitarist Chalmers "Spanky" Alford, and bassist Adam Blackstone.) "I think Ahmir and James called on us because they were hoping to deliver something authentic-sounding. If they wanted something superslick, they would've called some L.A. horn section."
Poyser says they wrote four of the album's 11 tracks on the first day in the studio. "Al got in the booth and started making up some words, and we just started playing. You could see on Al's face if something was working or not." Recalling the session, Green says: "They was asking me what I thought the record ought to sound like. I said, 'Let me do what I do and let you play what you play, and then we'll get together and grin at one another when we get through.' "
The results are definitely grinworthy: Though his voice now exudes more old-soul wisdom than young-man sensuality, Green rides the band's deep grooves with inimitable ease. If there's someone else in his sixties making records this effortlessly funky, he's not releasing them for public consumption.
On June 27, as part of the JVC Jazz Festival, Green will bring some of Lay It Down to Carnegie Hall, his first time performing there. Fans should be thrilled if Green delivers a set like the one he gave at last year's JVC festival in Newport. "Al wasn't good," says veteran Newport producer George Wein. "He was sensational."
Green takes the compliment in stride. "A lot of people don't jump up and try to sing my stuff, because they think it's too hard," he explains. "[They say,] 'I gotta try to do all these A-flat minor sevens and augmented A-flat nines? Oh, hell no!' "
In spite of their obvious showbiz savvy (singer Jenny Lewis and guitarist Blake Sennett led former lives as child actors), these L.A. guitar-popsters underestimated the backlash they'd provoke by going sleek and sexy on last year's Under the Blacklight. Don't believe the anti-hype: With its inside-out assessments of Hollywood's young and restless, Blacklight says more (and does so more satisfyingly) than most of Rilo Kiley's indie-scene peers. & Terminal 5, 8 p.m., terminal5.comThe Breeders
Their new Mountain Battles is a hazy, haunting psych-pop meditation sung in several languages, but don't take that as an assurance that Kim Deal's Breeders will stick to the mellow stuff. Deal likes to keep people (including her bandmates) guessing, which means maybe they'll show up here in loud-and fast mode and do "Cannonball" like they were Motörhead. & Webster Hall, 7 p.m., bowerypresents.comRobert Plant & Alison Krauss
In an interview last year, Plant told me that he couldn't imagine making his and Krauss's gorgeous Raising Sand with someone other than producer T-Bone Burnett—so it's a good thing that Burnett's on tour with the duo, helping to re-create the album's lush goth-roots vibe onstage. Expect most of the material from the record, but don't be surprised if they pull out some unreleased gems, too. & WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden, 8 p.m., thegarden.comAlicia Keys+Ne-Yo+Jordin Sparks
On her records, Keys makes no bones about presenting herself as part of an r&b tradition that goes back hardly further than Dangerously in Love. Catch her onstage, though—where she's not bound by the strictures of radio and MTV—and you get the complete picture of her aspirations: Homegirl demands no less than R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Ne-Yo colors outside the lines of the slow-jam blueprint on his forthcoming Year of the Gentleman. "Closer," the lead single, pretty much constitutes a straight-up house track. American Idol champ Sparks probably sends Keys a fruit basket every day. & Madison Square Garden, 7:30 p.m., thegarden.com
Sonic Youth+The Feelies
A free holiday show by the godparents of New York noise rock is not an occasion to pass up. When it comes equipped with an opening performance by New Jersey's Feelies—the influential guitar-pop outfit's first since the early '90s—it's a solid reason to miss your annual Fourth of July barbecue. & Battery Park, time TBA, rivertorivernyc.com