MCA has scheduled Al Green’s return to secular recording for October. Should that disc — completed but not yet titled — reflect the power and fervent range of his R&B hits/gospel revue, Green will retain his rightful place as king of smooth soul.
Green started his hourlong show dressed in an ironic mixture of conservative (black pants, white shirt, tie) and flashy (cobalt jacket, white gloves, sparkling muffler). As the hour progressed, the flash was stripped away in favor of sweat, handshaking with the audience and emotional substance. By the time he was down to just shirt and slacks, he was wrenching every drop of tender persuasion from “For the Good Times,” making that tune (which he recorded more than two decades ago) a personal romantic statement devoid of the sentimental weepiness country artists have been pumping into it for years. In equally spectacular readings of the spiritual “Amazing Grace,” the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You” and the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” the reverend dished up huge dollops of gospel and Memphis grit that made it inconceivable that these songs could be performed convincingly by anyone else.
The hits are naturally what attracted the sold-out crowd, which included Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino and Eddie Murphy, and Green — thanks to his crack band — delivered the goods handsomely. Full versions of “L-O-V-E (Love),””Let’s Stay Together,””Call Me” and “Take Me to the River” were fresh and invigorating, the kind of soul that never goes out of style. A closing medley of “Love and Happiness,” Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me,” Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it on,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and “Tired of Being Alone” never quite gelled, but Green exhibited how important soul’s roots are to him, a vocal welcome mat for the fans turned off by his religious material.
At this year’s Grammys, where Green won for his duet with Lyle Lovett, he spoke of forming a band with Willie Mitchell, the keyboardist and musical director behind his classic ’70s recordings for the Hi! label. If that comes to fruition, and Green tacks a half-hour of new material onto this too-brief show, we could be in for the comeback of the century.