Editors' pick

Al Green

Rhythm and Blues

Editorial Review

Wolf Trap, Tuesday night, Southern soul rapture: The Rev. Al Green is in fine voice as he performs those simmering songs about love and happiness and Him, and he's gliding effortlessly into falsetto range, and . . . hey, he has a piece of gum in his mouth!

So it turns out that yes, in fact, Al Green can chew gum and unleash those otherworldly shrieks in perfect pitch at the same time. It's just one of many things that he's capable of doing and the rest of us are not.

Green's voice is a miracle, an incomparable, inventive instrument that produces sublime, swooping sounds with apparently minimal effort. He sings with urgency, sensitivity, conviction, control and nuance -- not to mention creativity, particularly as regards his idiosyncratic phrasing.

At 62, there's still a stunning potency to his voice, even if he does spend less time working up high than he did in the 1970s, when he was singing his way onto soul music's Mount Rushmore. (That's his visage between Sam Cooke's and Aretha Franklin's.)

But Green can still dial it up with beguiling ease, and he did so frequently during Tuesday's 75-minute set. "Some of you are probably thinking, 'I wonder if the reverend's still got it,' " he said midway through a performance of one of his classic singles, "Tired of Being Alone." Green flashed a blinding smile and sent his voice soaring higher, then higher still.

It was just one marvelous, soul-stirring moment in a night filled with them.

Green was wearing mirrored sunglasses and a black tuxedo with white gloves, and he perspired profusely during the performance -- a combo that pretty much sums up his musical hallmark: cool, sophisticated elegance blended with the gritty, sweaty sensibility of Memphis soul.

Green created that style with producer Willie Mitchell in the 1970s, back when he was Aphrodisiac Al, the Arkansas-born, Memphis-based sultan of sensual soul songs. He abandoned baby-making music to return to his gospel roots near the end of the decade but eventually got reacquainted with his secular side and has released a string of new soul albums. The latest, "Lay It Down," sounds a lot like a vintage Al Green recording. It also sounds like a success -- Green's first Top 10 album in more than 30 years.

Backed by a pair of female vocalists and a 10-piece band (including a horn section and Hammond B3, natch) -- and flanked, on and off, by two male dancers who handled the moves that Green doesn't dare do anymore -- the reverend covered just about all corners of his career.

There were several new songs, including "Lay It Down's" smoldering title track, during which Green displayed a fiery side, throwing off his jacket while erupting in a soul-shouting fit. There was gospel, including a breathtaking version of "Amazing Grace." And, of course, there were the classics, some of which weren't even his own: As audience members called out for some of Green's own songs, he performed a medley of borrowed soul hits, including "My Girl," "Wonderful World" and "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay."

It was greatness acknowledging greatness, though it was also unnecessary, since Green -- a formidable songwriter during his peak in the 1970s -- has a remarkably deep catalogue.

Still, he got to his own career highlights, including "Let's Stay Together," more soothing than pleading, and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)," which was brassier, funkier and more urgent than ever.

"I'm Still in Love With You" began on low heat -- and at low volume -- as Green stopped and started, toying with the lyrics, his voice, the crowd, before it boiled over, the music swelling as his vocals soared. And on "Love and Happiness," over spiraling horn lines and driving rhythmic guitar and organ vamps, Green dropped to his knees and launched a flurry of notes skyward.

Most artists would pay dearly to hit one or two notes like that, but Green did it repeatedly, never missing his mark, never losing hold of a note -- and making it look easy all the while.

--J. Freedom du Lac, July 2008