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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Billy Preston: Encouraging Words


BILLY PRESTON: ENCOURAGING WORDS (1970)

1) Right Now; 2) Little Girl; 3) Use What You Got; 4) My Sweet Lord; 5) Let The Music Play; 6) The Same Thing Again; 7) I've Got A Feeling; 8) Sing One For The Lord; 9) When You Are Mine; 10) I Don't Want To Pretend; 11) Encouraging Words; 12) All Things Must Pass; 13) You've Been Acting Strange; 14*) As Long As I Got My Baby; 15*) All That I've Got I'm Gonna Give It To You.

Billy's second and last album for Apple is frequently singled out as the highest point of his solo career — for which there certainly has to be some objective basis. Much of the team that would very soon be working on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass is already assembled here, in­cluding George himself, who not only oversaw the production, but also contributed material: in fact, both ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ and ʽAll Things Must Passʼ itself were first shown the world  through Billy Preston's interpretation, before George could think of them as tested enough to make the grade on his own solo record.

I do not think we should drift too far away towards that opposite shore, though: Encouraging Words is a very good album that has been as unjustly forgotten as everything else masterminded by «that funny black keyboard guy in the Rooftop Concert», but fanboyishly overrating it (like Bruce Eder did in his AMG review) is no solution, either. In particular, ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ is not better than George's own version, and not just because it lacks the not-yet-invented slide motif, but also because Billy's religious fervor, no doubt sincere but rather ordinary for a professional soul/gospel performer («clichéd» if you will), is no match for the comparatively quiet, restrained, and «earned», if you will, rather than «in-yer-blood» spirituality of Harrison. Here, it is just a high quality gospel number, nothing more.

Overall, as usual, the performances are not memorable in an individualistic manner, and get by on the strength of the grooves, the collective spirit, tastefulness of the arrangements, and Billy's per­sonal charisma — the latter is particularly important, because all too often, he assumes a mentor tone (title track; ʽUse What You Gotʼ), which could be annoying, but he is also incapable of plun­ging into a holier-than-thou attitude: "stop getting jealous of the other fellows" is a line delivered with perfect credibility, so that you somehow get to know Billy is just «one of the guys» who mentors you because he cares, not out of some inflated narcissistic reason.

And, as «one of the guys», Preston simply does whatever it is his select genre requires him to do. Be sentimental? You got your ʽLittle Girlʼ, with an exaggerated tearful delivery. Rave and rant over unrequited love? You got your ʽWhen You Are Mineʼ, with a funky backbone and a psycho­tic vocal. Praise the Lord? You got your ʽSing One For The Lordʼ — slow tempos, gospel choir, the works. Be transcendental? Here is a cover of George's ʽAll Things Must Passʼ — very dif­ferent from the final version, with heavy orchestration instead of the guitar-brass arrangement that we are all used to. Be socially conscious? The title track will teach you to "stay in school and don't you be no dropout" — a pretty reasonable call for the first post-Woodstock year, even if, for some, it might make Billy look too much like a square (an image he would soon be growing out of, what with that large head of Afro hair and touring with the Stones at their wildest and all).

The only truly unpredictable choice here is the brave stab at ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ: you'd think that if there had to be one song exported by Billy from the Let It Be sessions, it would rather be ʽLet It Beʼ itself, or a torch ballad like ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ — okay, if it necessarily had to be something from the Rooftop Concert, it could have been a soul-burner like ʽDon't Let Me Downʼ, but ʽI've Got A Feelingʼ? That one is almost psychedelic, and it was quite an achieve­ment for Billy to sense its true funky soul and turn it into a playful groove (although the conversion of Lennon's counter-melody into an alternate megaphone-processed nasal overdub does not work at all). Still, of course, it lacks the snappy bite of the original — and the strangest thing about it is that Billy's keyboard work on the Beatles' recording is actually more impressive than on his own interpretation, where, as the «master of his domain», he could be expected to turn in a much more flashy performance.

There is no flash whatsoever on Encouraging Words, though — not even a Billy/Eric duel like the one on the coda to ʽThat's The Way God Planned Itʼ — and that's the way Billy planned it,  to be just a friendly soul/R&B party with a bunch of friends. And what friends — Derek & The Do­minos in their entirety, plus Harrison, plus Ringo, plus Jim Price and Bobby Keyes on horns,  plus the Edwin Hawkins Singers on backing vocals. There is really no thinking of this record in terms of «hooks» and «pre-meditated melodies» — much of it must have been created right then and there on the spot, and almost everything sounds terrific as long as it's on; then, as the in­dividual moments quickly fade from memory, the overall warmth still remains for quite a bit of time. Not a great record, perhaps, but an encouraging one indeed — thumbs up.

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