It would be a stretch to call Al Kooper one of rock’s overlooked masters, but the 40-year veteran has certainly built up a body of work expansive enough to be considered one of the music’s master craftsmen, able to take just about any material and build something memorable.
The Brooklyn native mined material culled from his ’60s stint with the Blues Project, his work with Blood, Sweat and Tears and his solo career for a two-hour homecoming gig in the Public Theatre’s jewel box of a new lounge.
Although the evening was billed as part of the “Piano Night” series, the typically contrary Kooper began his set by strapping on an electric guitar and launching into the Blues Project favorite “I Can’t Keep From Cryin’ Sometimes.” Demonstrating impressive vocal chops, he segued from the growling tone of that number to the lush melodrama of “Just One Smile” without missing a beat.
Remarkably, Kooper’s falsetto seems to have grown sharper with the passing years, as borne out by an encore rendition of the gospel classic “A Brighter Day.”
The intimate setting afforded the singer the opportunity to spin some lengthy yarns that showed off his raconteur side. But like many artists, Kooper faltered in judging his own work, which led to the airing of decidedly dated oldies such as the bubblegum “Violets at Dawn” (the Blues Project’s first-ever offering) and the grandiose Blood, Sweat and Tears groaner “The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes and Freud.”
Kooper fared much better when he stuck to more emotionally direct tunes from those earlier days. “I Can’t Quit Her” proved to be positively wrenching. Similarly, his more contemporary material, especially “Going, Going Gone,” came off as sharp and sardonic.