From conception to performance, from Leo Sacks’ idea to Michael Dorf’s delivery, “Lean on Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers” last week at Carnegie Hall was a fulfilling testament to the singer/songwriter, highlighted by vocalist Aloe Blacc’s almost tearful lament of “Hope She’ll be Happier.” She may not be, but the audience at this sold-out concert, a virtual reprise of Withers’ live performance and recording at the Hall in 1972, was uproariously ecstatic.
When Greg Phillinganes, the pianist and music director, bounced on stage, the evening’s exuberance was previewed, and except for Blacc’s ballad, Michael McDonald’s warm interpretation of “Hello Like Before,” and Amos Lee’s tender rendering of “Grandma’s Hands,” it was an upbeat affair, cresting when the performers took the stage at the end behind guitarist/singer Keb’ Mo’ on “I Wish You Well.”
The bulk of the show’s narrative conformed with the original album that was released in 1973, although for this concert there were numbers added in the opening—Jonathan Butler’s ebullient “Lovely Day,” that evolved into a songfest; “Hello Like Before,”; Vocalist Ledisi’s “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” which she essayed with a bluesy sultriness; and a playful duet on “Let Me Be The One You Need,” between Gregory Porter and Valerie Simpson.
For the encore, Blacc returned to the stage, much to the crowd’s delight, accompanied by tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and they burnished “Just the Two of Us” with just the right amount of togetherness and balance you would expect from two seasoned professionals. Marsalis was practically smiling through his horn during his exchanges with Blacc.
There was a slight murmur of disappointment when Dorf informed the audience that D’Angelo would not be appearing, but Dr. John, the voodoo master from New Orleans, filled in most rewardingly with his version of “Use Me.” Phillinganes, his hyper energy by no way stilled, etched a pleasant portrait of “Friend of Mine,” along with an introduction of his band, including Felicia Collins on guitar, Steve Jordan on drums, and Willie Weeks on bass. In many instances, the band matched the beat and propulsion of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band that backed Withers’ in the early seventies.
If the older folks in the Hall weren’t familiar with Ed Sheeran, his younger followers were and they greeted him with wild applause and resumed it at the end of his bright and brilliant rendition of “Ain’t No Shine.”
Gregory Porter possesses a big voice, when he chooses, and he did so on the “World Keeps Going Round,” his inflections properly modulated to capture she song’s cyclical and cynical insinuations. Only in its intensity of feeling did it resemble Butler’s pleading “Let Me in Your Life.” And we could have used more of Butler’s facility on the guitar.
Like Sheeran, Anthony Hamilton belongs to the Millennials and his “Better Off Dead” with a talkative aspect was perfectly sculpted for his fans. Dr. John at the piano would work his magic on “For My Friend,” and it was extremely persuasive.
After intermission, Keb’ Mo’ was first up and took a little time to talk about his generation of the sixties and the war in Vietnam, which was appropriate for “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” about a disabled veteran who has been shot in the right arm. Again, the guitarist deprived us of his skills on the strings. His sad tale gave way to jubilation when McDonald fronted The SAY Choir of youngsters and young adults on the anthem-like “Lean On Me,” perhaps Withers’ most popular tune. Hey, the kids one day can boast about playing Carnegie Hall.
Those who have seen Withers sing “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” on YouTube or caught him in person know he only plays about two or three chords, and that’s all Sheeran needed on his robust attack on the song, his voice equal in volume and tempo.
Another duo, country and western singer Kathy Mattea and Kori Withers, Bill’s daughter, cut loose on “Let Us Love,” and the filigree of notes from guitarist Collins provided them the break they needed.
Hamilton gave “Harlem/Cold Baloney” a festive, party-like mood and tone, and this was an opportunity for Philliganes and his band to rev up things, pushing Hamilton to the limits of his strong voice. There was enough heat from the beat to turn him into a swirling dervish.
Withers had made a brief appearance at the top of the show, but it was at the close that he commanded the microphone, not to sing but to get a few things off his chest.
“They’ve raised $50,000,” he said, noting the evening’s proceeds that will benefit SAY (Stuttering Association for the Young), a favorite charity for one who used to stutter. “That’s more than I made when I performed here.”
He had some caustic words for Donald Trump. “If he had said what he said to Carly Fiorina about her face to Judge Judy…well, since there are children here I won’t say what she might have said,” he paused. And there were kind words for the producer, Michael Dorf and co-producer Shlomo Lipsetz. “Who would have thought that a successful show could be produced by two men named Shlomo and Dorf?” he chuckled. His wife, Marcia Withers and Sacks were also part of the production team.
The grand finale brought all the performers to the stage for another round of “I Wish You Well,” and the wish was well-received by a standing ovation from the audience.
Outside the Hall with a slight rain falling, a couple who had attended the show was telling some friends about the show. “It was an awesome tribute to Bill Withers, you should have been there,” one of them beamed. Maybe there’s a recording of this like the first one, then millions can swear they were there.
(Photo by Herb Boyd)