Piece: Bill Withers – Live At Carnegie Hall (1973) (Sussex/Sony Classics)

January 30, 2010

Adam K (a.k.a Waldo a.k.a Gentleman Mixer) is back with his thoughts on the wonderful world of Bill Withers and his ‘Live At Carnegie Hall’ album.

It’s just past the beginning of the year and no one gives a damn about anything. Everything is rubbish with a capital bish. No one has got any of the money they didn’t have in the first place and everyone’s on a diet of bad news and broken dreams with the Nutty Professor II (The Klumps) on a loop behind your eyes. The snow came so quick your postie still looks like he’s been frozen mid-post by the Snow Queen for cavorting with centaurs (the dirty cove). Cadbury cream eggs are on sale. Things are rotten. But is there a small chink of light I can see? Something reassembling good times, cheer and the nectar of human joy swilling around our chinked mugs? Yes yes YES –second in the occasional trawl of lost wonderful albums – Live At Carnegie Hall by Bill Withers.

This is a live album which is not feted or fawned over by the rockist establishment and never appears in any lists of the best album ever, let alone best live album. It’s ignored and only really known by a happy breed of the great and amazing (hands up!). If you meet someone with this record you can cross them off your twat list straightaways and maybe even start a family with them. A good friend swears his love for Bill Withers was the hook that sealed the deal on a romantic engagement. It sounds like a shaky premise for a relationship and it’s not one that is normally on the top of the filter questionnaire list of dating uniformed men dot com but tosh, it’s a pretty damn perfect way to set off into the sunset. The converse is true too though; if your potential other half likes the Levellers you can kill them and the Judge wouldn’t even give you 50 hours of community service with Boy George. The good Judge would shake your hand and the clerk of the court would garland you with flowers and the bells would ring out.

Back to the album – you can buy it for 5 quid from Amazon (other virtual dream destroying warehouses are available) and that 5 quid will be the best you’ve ever spent. Yes, even better than the 5 quid you’re using to buy some Italian disco cast-off which you and 360 other sad beens are looking for to impress the other 359 ( the other 1 already has it from a charity shop for “like 50p”) in a futile disco pissing contest. Collecting in this form is all about individual possession and is not about engagement, enjoyment or gardener’s question time or everything else which makes us better.

Of course I digress, if you wanted linear go and read a phone book. You know where it’s going and you can laugh when you get to Mr.Nipple. Back on message. Mr Withers is an artist that never gets the recognition he deserves. Most of his albums have a patchy CD release if released at all and his only exposure is Dr Fox hammering “Lovely Day” on Heart FM when the temperature reaches 17 C (i.e. the temperature under which he can crawl out from under the algae riddled stone where he hibernates). Mr Withers is in fact up there with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and perhaps even edges those two through the sheer bristling humanity that surrounds his work, enveloping and bathing the listener in a glow of inspiration. You’ll forgive my hyperbole because it’s all a sky high fact because we’re talking about Bill Withers and this album. For a moment let’s cast off cool and the strictures it coerces upon us, directing us like a shadow nervous system. I know when you listen to this record a feeling of community energy pours out of the speakers and soars like an astral projection of light dissolving clouds and bleaching the moribund grey which coats everything. Friends, I am not a religious man but this is pure testifying business.

Mr Withers recorded this live album over two nights in October 1972 with a band which was essentially Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (minus Charles – who was too busy raising young Eazy E who, on reflection, probably didn’t spent enough time on the naughty step). He was only two albums down, which may seem rather early to issue a live album, a bit like Leona Lewis writing her autobiography “Leona: The story so far, 21 years of being confused by P.T.O written on both sides of the same piece of paper” but at 35 years old he was by music industry standards past it. Coming to music relatively late after a spell in the navy and working assembling aircraft his reluctance to embrace the music industry was pretty established and he did not walk the showbiz line. This is shown by the subject matter of the songs on this record, celebrating his grandmother, Vietnam veterans, friendship, middle aged women’s’ fears about relationships and, err, cold baloney. But the beauty of this record is the performance.

Sure the band’s performance is awesome – the opening 8 minutes of “Use Me” is high grade organic funk, loose and greasy yet tight as two coats of paint. Clearly the band gels and there is real love in their playing swirling around Bill. However the performance that leads this through the roof is Bill’s. Every time the audience sighs, cry or sings out with joy they confirm everything I as a listener feel about Bill on this record. The soul of the man sings out, contemplative, tender, and very funny. Just as great as his singing is (and it’s perfect), it’s his spoken introduction to the songs that are the strongest threads running through this. The two minutes in which he expounds on his relationship with his Grandmother before “Grandma’s Hands” are at points incredibly intimate and at the same time hilarious drawing in the audience and us. He just sounds like the purest soul in the world and time in his company feels like it validates everything rubbish going on anywhere. The best thing with these spoken interludes is that they are a conversation with the audience. There’s no performer’s ego here just the purest communication you get from one on one sharing – that‘s a special quality when in fact he’s singing to 2,000 people in an huge hall.

Hearing his voice points to why I think Bill Withers is a great artist. He sounds like he’s perhaps just as sad and weary as we may be, maybe wary of what we all struggle through but there’s a keen sense of hope, love and support. This is why I think as an artist he endures, he doesn’t sugar coat life but brings a sense of community. Throughout this album there’s a great deal of dark and light imagery, acknowledgment of the dark and of pain but knowledge that there is light and there is humanity out there. The pinnacle of this is “Hope She’ll Be Happier”, a resounding late night lament to a lost lover of pouring emotion as Bill wishes his ex well. Bill acknowledges there is a “darkness over which I have no power” but his love is so strong for her in truth seeing her happy is just as important to him as his brooding which will in time recede. At points Bill sings alone but at the key moment the strings surge forward and it’s heart stopping.

The finale is an epic 13 odd minute telling of Harlem and Cold Baloney which builds like the Amish in Witness, steady Rhodes funk breaking down into a marvellous call and response section with the audience singing like a recently assembled Gospel Choir. This breaks down into individual jams by the band (the bass driven Melvin Dunlap moment is so on point) but is so loose and the audience is with them all the way. The message in this track after the catharsis of this record is that the only way is up and we’re all going to Wembley.

With such a talent you wonder why Bill isn’t out there performing and saving our souls again. I can’t wait to see the next screening of the recent documentary on Bill, “Still Bill”, to find out.

Coincidentally “ Still Bill” is showing on the 21st February 2010 at the Prince Charles Cinema near Leicester Square at 1pm – tickets available here. You know what to do (i.e. see Still Bill at the Prince Charles, buy this album and send me photos of yourself in the bath).

[Adam K]

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