Oh dear. Some concerts exist largely so that the word ‘disappointing’ can be deployed by anoraks like me. Al Green’s ‘performance’ at the Royal Albert Hall last night was sadly one of them. He certainly set out to entertain – distributing roses to the ladies, embracing the ladies, sinking to his knees in front of the ladies, imploring us to believe in the power of the lawwwd, namechecking great black artists from John Coltrane to Sam Cooke – in fact doing just about anything to avoid getting down to the business of singing his songs.
Opening with a finessed version of ‘I Can’t Stop’ (the title track from his comeback Willie Mitchell-helmed album of a few years ago), it initially looked like all would be well, in spite of his voice seemingly needing a good warm-up. Unfortunately, the title of that song proved thoroughly misleading, as stopping seemed to be Green’s main concern. He was off to Manchester, Birmingham, Paris and Madrid, he kindly informed us, and we were all welcome to follow him. The ladies, of course, deserved to fly. Those in the audience who had paid around £40 for a ticket might well have been more concerned with the performance he should have been delivering in London. For that kind of money, a 60 minute set, with five minutes of build-up from the band at the outset, a further ten minutes of aimless jamming at the end and no encore, is simply expecting too much grace from your audience. Tonight, Al Green took our money and ran.
He performed just one new song from his forthcoming album (featuring collaborations with ?uestlove from The Roots, Alicia Keys and Anthony Hamilton amongst others), seeming to only sing half of it before giving up. He sounded enthused but tetchy during a medley of frustratingly brief snippets of soul classics. He introduced ‘Let’s Stay Together’ as a miracle from God, but then brought out some unforgiveably lame dancers while the band blitzed through the song at twice the appropriate speed. Green’s jacket came off, went back on, came off again and went back on again – and he implored us all to sing with him, the audience and backing singers doing much of the work for the majority of the show. When he actually set his mind to singing, as on a superb ‘Here I Am (Come and Take Me)’, there was still evidence of his sublime genius in phrasing and control. Yet whilst he managed the great leaps into falsetto, he really struggled with the rest of the top end of his range, sometimes failing to complete lines altogether.
All this was made much worse by a band of tediously proficient session players with little sensitivity or spirit. The brilliance of the Hi Records band from Memphis that originally played on these songs (and indeed toured again with Green in the last few years) was that they could sit just behind the beat, and never played anything extraneous or unsubtle. This band featured solos from an unfathomably bland keyboardist, a wild guitarist who decided 80s hair metal noodling was somehow appropriate, and some remarkably unadventurous horn players. Everything was performed at upbeat disco tempos, replacing the original slinky grooves with perfunctory attempts to get people dancing. We were introduced to the Musical Director at the end of the show – a man I would sack as a matter of priority. The Hi band wouldn’t have needed one – they would just have got on with the business of making soulful, emotive sound.
Luckily, the concert was improved immeasurably by the presence of special guest Candi Staton, who in her short set managed to achieve both entertainment value and quality vocal delivery. She still sounded remarkably powerful, pleasing the crowd with extended renditions of ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ and ‘You Got The Love’. There was an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the themes of her soulful, lightly groovy version of ‘Stand By Your Man’ and ‘His Hands’, an exquisite song about her journey from abuse to the Church written for her by Will Oldham. She demonstrated herself in command of a wide range of material in what was really only a very brief slot. I regret not catching her at the Jazz Café earlier this year.
Unfortunately, the quality of her performance only threw the ultimate failure of Green’s into sharper relief. Onstage for a mere 50 minutes, tonight it was less of the Reverend and more of the Redundant Al Green.