You know the Rev. Al Green was at home in Kentucky when the first sound out of his mouth at a profoundly soulful Halloween Eve concert at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts was a hearty “yee-haw.”
Don’t be fooled, though. Green may have been a welcome and versed Kentucky guest, having played his Norton Center debut two autumns earlier. But his music remained drenched in the sounds of ‘70s Memphis soul.
Backed by a 13 member band that included two dancers, a trio of backup singers made up of the singer’s daughters and a wildly efficient horn section, Green matched the gospel authority that drives his offstage life (he claimed, at one point, his order of job priorities were “preaching, sweating and singing”) with a soul conviction that has not diminished a whit over the past 40 years.
The popular falsetto squeal that has long been a trademark of Green’s music – and, in recent years, an improper critical measuring stick of his artistic validity – was employed devoutly but sparingly. A better indicator of his vocal prowess was an ability to stand three and four feet from the microphone, forcing his band to settle its orchestral charge, and sing with startling clarity. That was the set up for Let’s Get Married, but Green returned to the vocal setting repeatedly during the show.
While the crowd was brought to its feet several times by established hits like Let’s Stay Together (a soul affirmation that remained nothing short of euphoric) and Tired of Being Alone, the set was equally powerful when Green played things cool for the gospel medley of Amazing Grace and Nearer My God to Thee, his studiously righteous reading of the Bee Gees hit How Can You Mend a Broken Heart and the sublimely reserved Simply Beautiful. The latter was one of the four tunes offered from 1972’s I’m Still in Love with You album.
Of course, that didn’t mean the good Rev couldn’t cook up a party. The finale version of Love and Happiness (also from I’m Still in Love With You) was all churning, relentless funk taken at a far more turbulent pace than its recorded version. The vocal intent may have reflected Sunday morning, but the performance urgency screamed Saturday night.