Al Green is at the pinnacle of his career and he has the rare ability to do anything he wants to, but what he wants to do is play medleys and tease his audience with tastes of the magnificent voice we'd come to hear while lying about how hard he was working.
My friend Kevin thinks he is lazy, I dunno, maybe that's it. At the Beacon Theater on Wednesday it was something like that, maybe Attention Deficit Disorder. Green couldn't stay on subject for more that a minute, there was always something distracting him and except for noting that the three female backup singers are his daughter, none of what he had to say was germane to anything much at all. Two medleys were just bizarre. The first was a roots of Al Green, seldom more than a couple of bars of "Sugar Pie Honeybunch", "Bring It On Home To Me", "Dock Of The Bay"… stuff like that. Really? That's Green's roots? Coulda fooled me. He followed it with a similar medley of his own hits, "Can't Get Used To You", "For The Good Times"… the big stuff. In a slim 70 minute set both medleys were intensely unsatisfying. Like having a steak put in front of you but only being allowed to smell it.
It wasn't always so. I saw Green at the same venue in the 1990s where he played two hours, half Gospel, half hits, unspeakably superior to this set. It is as if the Reverend was screwing with us. A glimmer, a phrase here, a song, a mumbled entreaty would be just perfection and then he would do something else. Earlier that evening I'd asked global soul guitarist Tomas Doncker if Tomas agreed Al Green was the greatest soul singer of all time. Tomas put him in the top three. And if you had seen Green Wednesday night, you'd have conceded the point while thinking Green had lost the plot.
The last man I saw conduct a band with the precision Green showed was Van Morrison in 2009. Three horns, two keyboards, two dancers, two drummers, his three daughters and a male back up singer, all of them echoing Green's every whim and to what end? To 70 minutes of messing about… with exceptions.
In many ways, Green put on a remarkable performance. It is as if he was translating his thoughts into music, skipping through soul music and switching, changing, impressing and deprecating in a moment, in a second. When he lost the thread the band sounded like somebody that had lost its train of thought, and when he felt the moment, sometimes only for a couple of words while the band vamped and his daughters sang, all the scattered threads were tied together.
But it was unsettling as music. As a long term Green fan, I thought he was old, unwilling to give 100%. He reminded me a little of Ray Charles towards the end of his life, or Aretha Franklin in the 1990s, where she just couldn't remain on topic for long. It was, if anything, stranger with Green. His stories were rambling nothings, his calls of "New York, I love you" had no meaning. And his sound seemed to be completing the move from soul to funk, meaning it was too loud. Even the mostly white audience didn't seem that enthusiastic.
An early "How Can You Mend A Brokenhearted" not only failed to trib the recently departed Robin Gibbs, it really didn't include much singing. "Amazing Grace" killed for a verse in the middle but the rest of it was non existent and the "Pretty Woman" wasn't merely a terrible cover, it was the worst singing I've heard Al Green perform in his entire career.
The set steadies a little, but it is never that great. Green's conversation lives in a vacuum, and has little connection to the audience or too himself.
What he needs is somebody like, well like Tomas Doncker for one, maybe a Prince, maybe even a Jay-Z to produce a great show for him, not this stuff. Green and we deserve better. Chuck Berry is 90 years old, what's Greens excuse?