NEW YORK — He pranced and he shimmied. He pogoed and he galloped. He clowned and he cajoled. He begged and got down on his knees. But from the moment Al Green took the stage Wednesday night in Central Park, there was no question who was in charge.
Dressed from tie to toes in his signature white attire (with black Ray-Ban shades) and gold-and-diamond-studded fingers, he had the audience in the palm of his bejeweled hands.
The occasion was the Bell Atlantic Jazz festival, resuming after a two-day downpour that resulted in the cancellation of scheduled performances by the Funky Meters and Dr. John.
With a presence that loomed as large as did his songs, Green proved his voice still was capable of hitting those falsetto notes. He was animated and obviously in great spirits, and throughout the 60-minute-plus, nonstop performance, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself. He traversed the stage, singing and flinging roses into the arms of outstretched hands, working the stage and the audience with his gestures.
Green kicked off the set with "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," one of his Willie Mitchell-produced classics from the early '70s, and featured a solo from longtime guitarist Warren Jackson.
From Scandinavia With Love
The Central Park show marked the beginning of a U.S. tour for Green and company.
"We don't get to come to New York very often," Green stated, "but it's good to be here. We just came from the Scandinavian countries, and they send you their love, and I am supposed to deliver it to you."
Characteristically, Green's performance was a mix of secular and spiritual — in message and in song. "L-O-V-E" was the next gem culled from the Green catalog, leading into a rousing "Amazing Grace" — "I was blind until Jesus came into my life," he signified to the sky.
As the daylight turned to dusk, and as he wiped the sweat from his brow, the show took a turn, with Green and his band — three backup singers, a three-piece horn section, a drummer, percussionist, organist, bassist and two guitars — steering everyone into a trip down memory lane.
"I wanna go back to 1972. It seems like a long time ago, but I grew up with you ... we grew up together!" Green launched into "Let's Stay Together" (RealAudio excerpt), getting down on bended knee, arms outstretched and asking for the audience to join in.
It appeared that there wasn't a soul seated.
Green seemed to enjoy playing with the band, and at one point he abruptly broke with the set list, which seemed to fluster several on stage. "They want me to sing what's on the sheet, but I wanna sing what I feel, what's in my heart," Green said, laughing.
What he "felt" turned out to be such gems as Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" and an emotional "I've Been Loving You Too Long" that segued into a Motown medley including the Temptations' "My Girl," Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay" and "Tired of Being Alone" (RealAudio excerpt).
The show drew to a close with a promise to the audience — and a threat to the promoters — that the Memphis Full Gospel Tabernacle reverend was not going to leave the stage till he'd finished exercising — and exorcising — the crowd.
The audience cheered as the band kicked off the opening riffs of "Love & Happiness," with the signature guitar licks and staccato horn blasts, and Green threw the last of the long-stemmed roses into the crowd and left the stage.
When the lights rose and everyone returned to the stage, Green thanked God and invited all to take a trip with him down to the river: "Take Me to the River" (RealAudio excerpt), the Green-written tune that was popularized by the Talking Heads was a rousing, gospel-tinged rendition that was a perfect ending to a near-flawless performance by one of today's few artists who fits the label "living legend."
Folk songstress and musical legend Odetta warmed the crowd prior to Green's set, performing songs culled from throughout her 50-year career, interspersed with, in what she called a concession to her age, a pause to sit and read aloud from the writings of South Africa's former prisoner-turned-president, Nelson Mandela.
Al Green tour dates:
June 10; Mashantucket, Conn.; Foxwoods Casino
June 11; Baltimore, Md.; Pier Six Concert Pavilion
June 16; Detroit, Mich.; Fox Theatre
June 17; Indianapolis, Ind.; Indy Jazz Fest
June 18; Cleveland, Ohio; Palace Theatre
July 1; Milwaukee, Wis.; Summerfest
July 5; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Welsh Auditorium
July 7; Chicago, Ill.; Petrillo Band Shell
July 8; Ottawa, Ontario; Lebreton Flats Park