The Gospel According to Al

(Originally published on MOLI 6/25/07)

Al Green makes oldies feel brand new. Of course his signature tunes are some of the greatest love songs of all time: “Love and Happiness,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “Tired of Being Alone.” But Tuesday night at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Fla., he even made others’ chestnuts — “My Girl,” “Build Me Up, Buttercup” — sound reborn. That’s because the Reverend treats them like a preacher treats hymns that he sings over and over again: They’re fresh channels for the Holy Spirit every time.
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Not that he was in a religious mood, at the opening night of the BB King Blues Festival tour. Rather, Green was playing the fool. He got down on his knees to hit that first heavenly high note of the night — then broke tune and joked, “Did that hurt?” “I can’t take all of your love, I’m just one little man,” he kept telling the packed, rapt venue.

When the festival replaced opening act Etta James with Chaka Khan a couple weeks ago, it felt like a bait and switch. Sure enough, Khan’s set was disappointing; the funk diva’s shrill voice sounds shot — and at its best, was never a match for James’s. But Green and King held up the bill on their own. The 81-year-old diabetic headliner limped to the stage and played guitar sitting down. King too was in a jovial mood: “My knees are bad, my back’s bad, and my mind’s not much better.” But his hands can still wring those classic leads out of old Lucille.

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