Playing The Audience


Beaming roots-jazzer Cassandra Wilson looked like she meant it when she swore it was “great to be at the Beacon Theater” opening for Al Green December 6. And why not? Her whole career has been constructed to avoid the small career that haunts her—young standards-singer with a tiny slice of the shrinking jazz pie—and run into the larger audience out beyond the clubs and festivals. Green too has a career he’s been avoiding, ever since he left 25 years ago to preach at his own church and sing on the gospel circuit—his own past of early-’70s soul classics. Until now. I Can’t Stop is the well-publicized CD reunion with old Memphis collaborator Willie Mitchell, and the Beacon was his first non-gospel New York City show since way back when.

Just as each of Green’s careers accommodated suggestions of the other, Green’s singing and most of his persona are built around suggesting, avoiding, and implying. Classics such as “Let’s Stay Together” find Green above, below, in front of, and behind the melody, but it’s not the kind of improvising that’s meant to create a hip distance from the material. Like Buddy Guy when they let him play electric guitar, he describes the perfect note by playing around it, because it’s so perfect it can’t exist in this fallen world. Both neo-traditionalist geniuses can reach a peak where they quote a phrase by just remaining silent. That isn’t less-is-more minimalism, it’s nothing-is-everything spirituality. You get so close to something so big you’ll miss it if you get any closer, like Jews not spelling out the name of G-d, or Greek Orthodox not representing past the two dimensions of the icon.

I Can’t Stop works as return to form, as proof that Green’s groove, voice, and riffs are largely intact. But Green gets tied down when production’s slathered on a bit too thick, as if every Hi Rhythm soul lick must be utilized to substantiate the comeback. So there aren’t as many openings for our man to expand into as in the past. No such problems at the Beacon. Half a dozen old hits, three new ones, and “Amazing Grace/Nearer My God to Thee” weren’t just presented—they were worked over, by a supple-voiced Green fronting a full-strength soul band. Al was back, but he wasn’t merely embracing his old material and those who love it; he was establishing his own undiminished vitality. Gone was the flaky but fascinating young live Al of yore. In his place was a guy who’s spent a good part of the past 25 years leading a congregation on Sunday mornings. Songs were vamped on, compressed, anticipated, shouted, whispered, and falsettoed; congregants were revved up and quieted down, chatted up, preached to, sung with, sung at, and pelted with roses. That the largely white audience followed these changing cues shows just how much African American Christianity has seeped into secular culture.

Sure, some of the pacing was the judicious parceling out of limited resources by a professional on tour. But like Cassandra, Al looked genuinely happy to see us. What was great about his old songs is that the riffs were as rock-solid as the performance was jazz-improvised. So playing around with them only made them sound more like they used to, and playing around with us made us feel more like we used to, too—not in a nostalgia-mongering way, but as if we, his pop fans, were also an old riff getting a fresh improvisation. The night was such a wonderful combination of sacred and secular, eros and agape, it made you wonder. Maybe Al walked away from his fame not because there was something wrong with it, but because it was perfect. “Throw it away,” sang Cassandra, quoting Abbey Lincoln. Maybe she should have added, “Just come back and check on it sometime in the next millennium.”