Born again: the Soul music rebirth of Al Green

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March 22, 2004 // UPDATED 10:20 am - April 25, 2007
By: Burl Gilyard
Burl Gilyard

Catch his second coming March 29 at the Guthrie

Dim the lights. Yeah, turn the lights down low. You want to hear a little music? Sure. I've got just the thing. Make yourself comfortable. Just kick back. After all, Al Green has a new album.

Green's music has been providing a soundtrack for people to make out, make love and more since his first album in 1970. He sings like a funky angel.

Now Green is back on the road, evangelizing in song about the power of love and touring to tout his latest album. Green's love caravan makes a rare stop in the Twin Cities on Monday, March 29 at the Guthrie Theater, 725 Vineland Place.

Just can't stop

During the zenith of his commercial success, from 1971 to 1974, Green scored an endless string of hits: "Tired of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together," "Love and Happiness," "I'm Still in Love with You," "Call Me," "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" and many more -- all guided by producer-arranger-guru Willie Mitchell.

Green ranks among the greatest, purest singers of his -- or any other -- generation.

His new album "I Can't Stop" -- "loving you," don't you know -- heralds a joyous reunion of 70-something producer Mitchell and his onetime prodigy Green. The pair co-wrote eight of the album's dozen tracks; Green penned the rest himself. From the opening strains of the title cut, it's clear that Green and Mitchell have crafted an old school, retro-style Green soul album complete with muted horns, silky strings and the insouciant Memphis funkiness.

Several of the musicians -- including guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and his brother, bassist Leroy Hodges -- are also veterans of Green's stellar '70s sessions. Mitchell and Green have thankfully avoided the comeback album clich/ of teaming the aging star with the young Turks of the moment: thankfully, there are no duets with Kid Rock here.

Instead, the music is a testament to the classic Green sound. When you hear "I Can't Stop," you can't help but wonder, "What year is this?" The emotional, inviting music quickly transports you to Green's musical past. On one song, Green laments, "I got too many ghosts inside my head." Yet, his musical ghosts are friendly spirits.

Green, part two

Green's return is being hailed as nothing less than a musical second coming. Since the late 1970s, Green has presided as Reverend Green at his own church and recorded primarily gospel music. Now, Green has stepped outside the church to ask the deathless musical question, "I know you fine, but how you doin'?" Well, OK. Green puts it with a little more style and class. He struts like a duck at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. (That's meant as a compliment: Memphis has the funkiest ducks on the planet.)

The struggle between heaven and earth is nothing new for Green. As a kid, Green (born Al Greene) was booted out of a family gospel quartet for embracing the earthly pleasures of Jackie Wilson's rhythm and blues music. The die was cast.

The theme on "I Can't Stop" is, as a vintage Green song put it, "L-O-V-E (Love)." Throughout the album, Green celebrates his favorite four-letter word on songs like "I'd Still Choose You" and "Million to One." Many of the tunes hit a bluesy, plaintive, late-night note. On "Not Tonight," he pleads with a lover to stay: "Don't get on that train." That train? Who still takes the train? That's old school soul for you.

However, song lyrics are often secondary to the overall feeling conveyed by Green's voice. "I've Been Thinkin' 'Bout You" contains about two dozen words total, repeated in various combinations as a mantra. Green's lyrics are simple, direct and heartfelt. He sings the simple truth.

True soul food

Green's voice is an instrument without peer or parallel. There are no new adjectives to describe his much-praised vocals, but here are a few old ones for starters: Warm. Silky. Sly. Sexy. Sometimes it's hard to tell if he's singing or just whispering in your ear. His voice swoops, swoons, croons, whispers, coos, exhorts and hollers. Then he just plain cuts loose.

Green can take any song and turn it into a soul testament. In the past, Green has remade unlikely songs such as "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" (the Bee Gees), "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Willie Nelson), "For the Good Times" (Kris Kristofferson) and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (Hank Williams) into intensely personal statements.

If you've been to Memphis, you can almost hear the music hanging in the air throughout the city. There, about a mile south of Graceland in the suburb of Whitehaven, you can take a westward turn off of Elvis Presley Boulevard onto Hale Road. A short ways down the road you will come to a simple church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle. This is Reverend Green's church. Say a prayer, and hope that Reverend Green is in town.

Services typically last for a free-flowing three hours. The back row is unofficially reserved for visitors: Memphis music hipsters and soul music cognoscenti who have come to pay their respects.

The church band is down-home funky. Here, Green's ebullient preaching and improvisational singing style blend into one, as he jumps back and forth between speaking and singing gospel standards like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Amazing Grace."

I remember a gregarious, heavyset woman welcoming my wife after one service. When my wife extended her hand, the woman threw her arms wide open and proclaimed, "I'm into hugs!" before enveloping my wife in her arms. That's the spirit of Green's church and the enduring spirit of his music. Everyone's invited and everyone is welcome to worship with Green, whether he's singing about God -- or love. Green exudes joy, especially when his beatific smile flashes across his face.

Green turns 58 next month, but you wouldn't know it to look at the man. He's taken care of himself and his pipes. Minneapolis is blessed to be on his tour schedule for 2004, offering mere mortals a chance to touch the hem of his garment.

Hallelujah and amen.