Prior to the George Benson concert last night at Merriweather Post Pavilion, vendors were selling T-shirts with the slogan "Very Mellow" emblazoned across the front. Truer words have never been worn -- Benson's concert was very mellow.
Not that his show is one endless parade of tepid, glibly arranged ballads; it just seems that way at times. There's no denying Benson's exceptional fluency on guitar, his pleasing tenor voice, or the swinging jazz pulse he can impart to a tune, as he demonstrated last night on Paul Desmond's "Take Five." But there's also no denying that most of the ballads Benson sings in concert -- and a majority of the instrumentals he and his nine-piece band perform -- sound exceedingly alike.
Leon Russell's "Lady Blue" and George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" were both shallow and bland. Eddie Jefferson's "Moody's Mood for Love," awash in synthesized strings, also lacked the warmth and expression of the original. Only Benson's spirited duet with percussionist Vickie Randle and his occasional exchanges with fellow guitarist Michael O'Neill prevented the music from being totally mellow.
A lovely haze seemed to envelop every word Randy Crawford sang earlier in the evening. A more intimate setting would have better served her soft ballads, but she clearly won herself a larger audience last night.