Al Green: The Spirit Is Willing . . .

When I told my sister Karen I was going to see Al Green perform at the Chicago Theater May 7, she replied, “You mean Reverend Green.”

Yes. Reverend Al Green. The Al Green who sold millions of records singing about love and sexuality before becoming an ordained pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where he preaches today.

When I was a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, Al Green was my world. He made me fall in love with music, a love that remains today. Whenever I could save up enough money, I’d ask my mom to take me to Kmart, where I sought out 45s from his Memphis record label, Hi. He was more than an entertaining singer with a sweet falsetto voice. He introduced me to feelings of love and longing through songs such as “You Ought to Be with Me” and “Call Me.” He was also the only black person I knew, or at least I felt like I knew, in our neighborhood north of town in the country. To a lonely kid afraid of the world, Al Green felt like an exciting voice from a grown-up place, assuring me of experiences yet to come with people from unexplored paths who looked and sounded different than me. He also figured into some family history, too, as I’ve described in my post “Al Green and the Family War.”

As I grew older and my musical tastes branched out, I never lost sight of Al Green’s brilliance. That cooing voice, punctuated by the Memphis horns and the tight rhythms conjured up by Willie Mitchell’s smooth production, always brought me back to those magical days of musical discovery in Battle Creek. Meanwhile Al Green embraced gospel for a lengthy run and then returned to secular music in 2003, releasing generally well-received albums over a period of five years. But after 2008’s Lay It Down, he stopped recording. So a few months ago, I was surprised to hear that out of the blue, he had decided to do a tour of eight venues, including the Chicago Theater. I scooped up two tickets for me and my wife, Jan.

I did not quite know what to expect. Al Green had recently turned 73 years old. Mick Jagger, two years his senior, remains a powerful force in concert, but he maintains a rigorous physical regime (as evidenced by his rapid recovery from a recent heart valve replacement). Artists such as Robert Plant have shown that they can turn their aging voices into a strength by adapting their vocal styles. They choose songs that not only accentuate their maturing voices, but also open up new vistas of musical discovery for themselves and their audience. But Robert Plant hones his voice through ongoing touring and songwriting. Al Green had not toured in years. Judging from recent photos, he looked heavier. But this might be the only chance we’d have to see him live.

So on a spring Tuesday evening, Jan and I took our seats in the balcony of the Chicago Theater to find out what Al Green had to offer. After an opening act, a 15-piece band blasted a salvo of strings and horns, and out sauntered the reverend, holding roses in his arms, singing “It Ain’t No Fun to Me.” He sounded huskier, but he hit those high notes with conviction. He wore a red vest and dark suit that barely contained his stocky frame. He prowled about the stage and handed roses to the women. He waved to the balcony and yelled “I love you Chicago!” often. We could feel his charisma even from where we sat. When a woman tossed her sweater onstage, the audience roared with approval.

I cannot remember the last time I heard a singer yell “I love you!” to his audience and seem like he meant it. Maybe I never have. A few years ago, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was performing at the Riviera when a fan yelled “We love you!” Darnielle replied, flatly, “No you don’t. You don’t even know me.” Al Green would have none of that disaffection. He fed off the audience’s obvious affection and gave it back to us.

The roses and the “I love you’s” were great theater. The gestures also captured the essence of Al Green. This is a man whose signature tune is “Love and Happiness” and who once released an album entitled Al Green Is Love. This is a man who was also a notorious lothario. At the height of his fame, a married woman he was romantically involved with, Mary Woodson White, became distraught when he refused to marry her. She poured boiling grits on him while he was bathing and then shot herself in the head. The story is essential to the Al Green mythology — the sinner who loved liberally before tasting hell and turning to the gospel for personal redemption. In reality, the lover-turned-preacher myth is not so clean-cut, as stories of domestic abuse dogged him into the early 1980s. In 1982, the same year he recorded the album Precious Lordhe admitted to spousal abuse. Whatever demons might have consumed him, he recorded more than a dozen gospel albums in the 1980s and 1990s, as he focused on preaching and singing for God.

He is also a man whose falsetto pierces your heart. Such is the power of artistic expression that a loyal audience casts aside the inconvenient facts and believes the myth. It was clear from the enthusiastic response from the audience at the Chicago Theater that we were surrounded by believers. He blitzed through his classics, such as “Let’s Get Married” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” He delved into country (“For the Good Times”) and briefly transformed the Chicago Theater into the Full Gospel Tabernacle with a tender “Amazing Grace.” When he sang “Let’s Stay Together,” I shed a tear. He passed out more roses.

But about midway through the show, the myth began to fade. He became winded. He sat in a chair for a few songs, which made me think of an aging Phil Collins, now performing entire concerts seated in a chair owing to chronic back problems. He occasionally took off his jacket, lay it on the floor, and then slowly put it on again, an odd gesture that seemed to serve no purpose but to give him an excuse to stop singing and take a break. He paused to walk over to a table laden with bottles of Gatorade and water, and he took leisurely swigs, taking his time to unscrew the caps instead of singing.

And the reverend began to cheat. He cut corners with his songs. He sang incomplete verses before walking away from the microphone to hand out more flowers. He coasted through medleys, which allowed him to pick the least-demanding parts of the songs before moving on to the next one. He leaned on the audience to sing along with him, inviting them to handle entire verses for him. I knew what he was doing, and Jan did, too: taking a rest and letting the audience do the work we’d paid him to do.

Jan would later tell me that he reminded her of a visibly winded Axl Rose performing at the United Center in November 2017. But whereas Axl Rose could lean on the powerful guitar work of Guns N’ Roses bandmate Slash for a rest, Al Green didn’t have a foil onstage. But he did have the audience, and maybe it was appropriate that he leaned on us. After all, we were his wellspring of energy.

I wanted badly to like what I was hearing and seeing. And Al Green’s charm draws you into his orbit. I also wanted to relive those days when I would flip through the singles at Kmart in search of an Al Green song and then celebrate the moment when my eye caught that black Hi Records label. So this is what it must have been like for all those Elvis fans watching the bloated King labor onstage in his caped Elvis suit in the 1970s — longing and wanting, not for the man onstage but for an experience they could not have again. Perhaps if you shut your eyes, you could hold on to the myth.

After about an hour, the opening strains of one of his signature songs, “Love and Happiness,” filled the hall. “Love and Happiness” is recorded with a gentle guitar strum, a simple tapping of two feet on a Coke carton, and a whoosh of an organ, all atmosphere and nuance. But at the Chicago Theater, the song sounded like an anthem, engineered to fill the entire auditorium with a loud stampede of trumpets and a stanza repeated while the reverend handed out more flowers before disappearing and leaving us alone with his band and a table littered with plastic bottles of water and Gatorade. The lights came on. There was no encore.

But he was still Al Green. In the flesh. As the Reverend Green could quote from scripture, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

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