Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #35 - Bill Withers - Live At Carnegie Hall

Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall is one of those rare recordings that really can only be described as magic. It is one of the greatest live records of all time and is often mentioned in the same breath as James Brown’s Live At The Apollo, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis Live and any number of others. The songs and their playing order feels like a conversation – about love, poverty, family, war, friendship, maturing, and whatever other human experience was on his palate that October evening in 1972.
This is an album you become absolutely immersed in from the very beginning. The laid back but musically tight eight-minute plus version of “Use Me” gets the crowd out of their seats early chanting “One more time!” to which Bill asks, “One more time?” and then obliges the audience, sounding just as excited as they are to dive back into the chorus. This is the vibe of the entire record. Bill comes across as everything he is: warm, funny, cool, vulnerable, wise, and above all, genuine. He talks to the crowd, and when praising and jabbing at his band mates, he makes sure the audience is included on the inside jokes. He shares it all with whoever is listening, and you can’t stop listening.
There is no shortage of advice given and lessons learned in Bill’s writing, but he never comes across as preachy or holier than thou” but rather he sounds achingly human and blunt. He has the rare gift of being able to convey lyrically what so many feel but can’t put to words. It’s not only what is being said but how it’s being sung. Bill has a voice and sound that’s never quite been duplicated; not by his peers of the time like Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or by anyone else for that matter. Bill never had any proper musical training and as a result no one to tell him he was doing it wrong. He was a wholly unique, folksy R&B singer/songwriter, equal parts rock n’ roll and soul crooner. He was the embodiment of the progressive R&B movement of the moment.
Bill came to the music industry relatively late, not even singing one of his own songs in front of others until his early thirties and has been quoted as saying, “When you have a talent you know it when you’re five years old - it’s just getting around to it,” and here we get him at the absolute peak of his career.
These are songs written as much about people as for people. Alive or dead, grandmother, stranger, neighbor, friend, or lover. These joyous songs, these reflective songs are all about the human experience, specifically the American experience of the time. On the solemn “I Can’t Write Left Handed” Bill puts himself in the shoes of a young man he met that had recently returned from Vietnam after losing his right arm. It is one of the greatest anti-war songs of not only the post-Vietnam era but of all time. Bill’s biggest hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me” take on a life of their own, while lesser known tunes like “Grandma’s Hands,” “Better Off Dead” and “World Keeps Going Around” are made into classics.
To quote from Bill’s writing in the liner notes: “Affection! By the time we got into ‘Harlem’ us and the audience had become all happy members of one big band all on one stage.”
So now do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of this album, listen to it repeatedly, and let it in your life.
Andrew Kleiman

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