August 31, 2016
NEWS FLASH: George Benson's gone pop! OK, maybe that one's about 40 years late. I even knew that at the time it happened, having purchased the Breezin'
album (Warner Brothers, 1976) when it first came out. But, over the years, through careful picking and choosing and focusing on his older material, I've mainly been listening to his jazz side.
Nevertheless, I knew that a George Benson concert would include a lot of crooning. But after about the fourth song in a row with the word "love" in the title, I was having trouble holding my head above the swirling saccharine. But the crowd loved it! "Turn Your Love Around" inspired an avalanche of white heads to the front of the stage for an impromptu mosh pit, er, uh, I mean dancing! Yes, dancing at a jazz concert! How often does that happen?
So love was in the air, love was turning around, love was multiplied by itself (love squared?), love is what we got, love didn't change, George felt like making love, he was in the mood for love and he wanted to love us one more time. Whew! I hadn't felt so desirable since the last visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Sample lyrics "Love is in the air/Love is everywhere." Awwww....
Benson opened the show with "Breezin,'" a tune that may be a little too happy for its own good, but still, it provided a vehicle for Benson to display his jazz chops. And make no mistake, these have been formidable chops for decades now and they still are. The next tune, "Love X Love" officially started the love-fest, but the guitar and the chops were still front and center. The third song, "At the Mambo Inn," jazzed things up and let the chops shine. But then, love overwhelmed the program, Benson put down his guitar, and with it, his jazz chops, and made love with the microphone.
As love song after love song oozed from the stage, the guitar and the jazz chops watched in silence, forlorn, forsaken, forgotten...In silence, the guitar gently wept. It was a guitar with the blues.
An early bluesman, Son House, once said, "Ain't no blues but the kind of blues between a man and a woman." And why did the man and the woman have the blues? It wasn't because they were enraptured with the kind of love Benson sang about again and again Wednesday night. No, it was because of the dark side of love; the lyin,' the cheatin,' the heartbreak, the sunset of love as opposed to the dawn of love which was Benson's focus.
But the crowd loved it! They were happy! They were dancing! They most decidedly did NOT have the blues. Love sells.
Fortunately, it wasn't a one-way trip to popdom. Benson put the jazz train back on the tracks and, to the delight of the jazz lovers in the audience and of course to the delight of the guitar and the jazz chops as well, Benson picked up his guitar several times throughout the evening. A jazz highlight was "Moody's Mood for Love." During the song, he talked about its composer and asked how many people knew about James Moody. Tepid response. Sigh. Well, it just wasn't that kind of audience. "The Ghetto" by Donnie Hathaway was a kicking tune that blew the powdered sugar off the double glazed donuts and replaced it with a little bit of grit. Yum!
The first encore song was the instrumental "Give Me the Night" where Benson uncorked one of his trademark scat/guitar sequences. He had thrown those in a number of tunes through the set and clearly they were some of the highlights of the evening. The closer, "On Broadway," was a hit for Benson around 38 years ago and provided another platform for stretching out, particularly because he needed to show why the song applied so much to him, "They're dead wrong/I know they are/'Cause I can play/This here guitar." Cheers!
Not surprisingly, Benson's band was top notch. It featured two keyboard players (one to play organ and piano parts and the other to add synthetic strings and such), bass, drums, another guitar and a percussionist. Most of them provided backing vocals too. Even when the love got thick as roofing tar, the band kept its groove on.
At 73, Benson is still in fine shape in both voice and guitar ability. Of course, he's always been a good looking guy too. Wednesday night he wore leather pants and at one point put his hands behind his head and executed a little hip thrust sending squeals and twitters through the female audience members. A stud at 73. Maybe all those love songs are worth it.
Set List: Breezin'; Love X Love; At the Mambo Inn; Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You; Turn Your Love Around; Feel Like Makin' Love; In Your Eyes; Kisses in the Moonlight; Shiver; The Ghetto (Donnie Hathaway cover); Don't Know Why (Norah Jones cover); Guitar scat, Something about love; Never Give Up on a Good Thing (Love is What You've Got); Moody's Mood for Love; Lady Love Me One More Time; Encore: Give Me the Night; On Broadway