BILL WITHERS: LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1973)
1) Use Me; 2) Friend Of Mine; 3) Ain't No Sunshine; 4) Grandma's Hands; 5) World Keeps Going Around; 6) Let Me In Your Life; 7) Better Off Dead; 8) For My Friend; 9) I Can't Write Left-Handed; 10) Lean On Me; 11) Lonely Town, Lonely Street; 12) Hope She'll Be Happier; 13) Let Us Love; 14) Harlem / Cold Baloney.
Well, apparently it does not take that much practice to get to Carnegie Hall — the bare minimum is to have yourself a No. 1 single with clap-along potential. Not that Bill Withers did not deserve a show at Carnegie Hall on October 6, 1972, or a live double album memorizing the event, but it is a little ironic how quickly he got there, especially keeping in mind that his two first albums easily convey the impression of an introvert loner, hardly fit for the large stage at all.
I must say that the concert performance, despite actually having happened, does not dispel that impression. Like a typical R&B show, it incorporates some lengthy groove-based workouts: ʽUse Meʼ, opening the proceedings, is stretched out from its original length to around eight minutes (could have been shorter, but Bill does a second re-run of the jam section at the crowd's request), and ʽHarlemʼ, closing the show, runs for about thirteen minutes, mutating into another funky jam, sarcastically titled ʽCold Baloneyʼ.
In a way, it is cold baloney: Bill's backing band is no James Brown Orchestra or Parliament, and Bill himself is not much of a crowd stimulant — he can certainly lead the audience in an R&B ritual, entrancing them with a couple looped lines from ʽShake 'Em On Downʼ, but his talents in that sphere are nothing out of the ordinary; it's more like he is engaging in a genre-obliging convention here. In fact, even the main groove of ʽUse Meʼ, converted from clavinet to guitar, seems a bit limp and toothless when compared to the studio original. The audience, still under the fresh spell of the song, did not seem to mind, but in retrospect, I am not sure whether anybody would want to trade in the studio version for the live run.
The show's greatness certainly lies elsewhere — in between the obligatory dance-oriented bookmarks, the material is gradually unwrapping like a multi-angled portrait of Bill Withers, «the thinking man's R&B artist» and an all-around interesting person. First, there's some incredibly cool stage banter, probably some of the best you'll ever get on a live R&B album, ranging from innocent, but funny jokes concerning members of the band ("on bass, we got cool Melvin Dunlap... Melvin's so quiet, he said eight words last year, and six of those were 'airport'...") to fabulously worded accounts of his past, such as the one that introduces ʽGrandma's Handsʼ and, together with the song itself, should now probably count as the coolest eulogy that anybody ever gave to his grannie in show business. Bill's feelings towards the ladies (ʽLet Me In Your Lifeʼ) and the Vietnam War (ʽI Can't Write Left-Handedʼ) are also made known in a manner that is sensitive, intelligent, and reasonably funny at the same time (well, «funny» in case of the ladies, that is, not the Vietnam War).
But, of course, the banter is still only secondary next to the songs themselves: we have faithful renditions of lots of classics, not particularly different from the studio versions but sung with the same combination of abandon, introspection, and technique (the extended "she's gone" bit at the end of ʽHope She'll Be Happier With Himʼ draws excited audience applause, as does the "I know I know..." trick on ʽAin't No Sunshineʼ), and then, most importantly, there is a bunch of new songs here that never made it onto any official studio LP. Of these, ʽWorld Keeps Going Aroundʼ is a dark confessional, sort of a personal exorcism set to a bubbling mid-tempo funk groove; ʽFor My Friendʼ is equally shivery, foreboding blues-rock with a particularly gloomy bassline and a wah-wah lead croaking in the darkness (a bit of an unsettling background for a tune that allegedly deals with the issue of making up among friends — unless the friend in question is Satan himself, of course); and the already mentioned ʽI Can't Write Left-Handedʼ is a repetitive, but haunting groove, supported by the band's collective graveyard harmonies. Subtle and moving tribute to the dead, with one leg in the old Afro-American tradition and the other one well in the present.
There is no evident reason for us to call this one of the greatest live albums of the decade: Bill's band is competent, but restrained (which is probably due more to the bandleader's conscious will than to lack of experience, since most of the members were professionals, recruited from the wreck of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band), the songs are mostly not «reinvented» live, and Bill's commitment to the performance is pretty much at the same high (but not «hyper-high») level in the studio and in the live hall. But the general atmosphere of the event, which cannot really be described in words, makes the experience as a whole very rewarding; there is a certain naturalness and completeness to Bill Withers here, in this long setting, that could be missed on the much shorter studio records.
My only gripe is that the long jam sections should have probably been sacrificed to make way for better songs (so much great stuff on Still Bill that is not featured here!) — I understand the decision to frame the «Bill Withers soliloquoy» with a few numbers that make the listener feel as one with the performer, it's just that this guy here is one performer who has a far better chance to get under your skin when he is singing dark odes to loneliness to the solitary sound of an acoustic guitar than when he gets you to clap his hands and stomp your feet along with the band. Oh well, standard laws of the world of entertainment, and, after all, Bill was never a self-conscious «rebel» against the laws, which only emphasizes his humbleness. Thumbs up.