I could hear Al Green, but I couldn't see him because the crowd was too thick. The gospel-soul legend performed Friday night - the biggest act of this year's Artscape, the city's celebration of music, dance, theater, visual arts and literature. During the next two days, I and the other music lovers who thronged to the festival reveled in sounds ranging from Afro-Cuban jazz to the digital beats of electronica.
Green's unmistakable sound hung in the air like the smell of ham hocks and collard greens, whetting my appetite for something I knew would fill me up. Finally, after stepping on a few toes and pushing past some folks, I was able to see the man. Telling us that "everythang's gon be alright/He's comin' back/like He said He would," Rev. Al, decked out in a three-piece ivory suit, was in country-preacher mode but only for a moment.
Standing at the edge of the stage, he shouted into the mike, "Somebody out there knows what I'm talkin' about. God is good! He called me to tell the people that y'all are blessed!" Listeners dotting the grassy hill in front of the outdoor stage shook neon-green maracas as Green segued into "Amazing Grace." But he only sang a few lines before he morphed into the R&B titan he used to be.
"Let's go back a li' bit to 1972," Al told us. And the horns blast the strutting first notes to the classic "Lets Stay Together."
The crowd white, black, old, young, well-to-do, nothing-to-do, athletic, out-of-shape sang the chorus with Al, voices swelling in the humid night air. "Leeeeeeets stay together/lovin you whether, wheeeeether/times are good or bad/happy or sad ."
It was a love-in. A man and woman probably in their mid-50s swayed to the rhythm by a barricade that was keeping people from sneaking backstage. He kissed her tenderly. She laid her head on his chest, and the picture-perfect scene was sweet. A white teen-ager in a khaki baseball cap, thong sandals and an orange Old Navy T-shirt stood next to me and sang way off-key, but he knew every word. All of which proves that Al's tunes are for everybody. It's music that heals; it soothes and dissolves the troubles of the day. And his material continues to sell: His greatest hits compilation, which came out in 1995, is multi-platinum.
When the right reverend slid into "Tired of Being Alone," his first pop smash from '71, he smoldered. His voice is still the agile, fluid instrument it has always been, but with a little more grit, adding depth and character. Al removed his jacket to groove and move to the spirit as the band broke down 1973s "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." The tempo quickened. Al put one hand on his hip, raised the other one and shimmied a bit. He was such a presence, his band so new-shoes-tight that the three cornrowed male dancers behind him were pointless. Plus, they looked as if they didn't quite know what to do, seemingly making up tired routines on the spot.
But they weren't much of a distraction, and since many folks couldn't see the stage anyway, they just felt the music. About a foot from where I stood, a little girl (no more than 6 or 7) in a banana-yellow dress with white beads on her braids shook her hips as the band extended "Here I Am." Sitting in a fold-out chair, her grandmother, a smiling silver-haired woman, egged the girl on: "Go head, grandma's baby. Go head."
Al ended with "Love and Happiness," one of his classics from 1972's I'm Still in Love With You. The airy, country funk tune has been a crowd pleaser for years. But isn't every Al Green hit a crowd favorite? The music still breathes.
Standing there among all those people, sweat rolling down the sides of your face, I was transported to the smoke-filled card parties my folks used to throw in the living room back when the neighborhood was still safe and clean, back when my parents were still happy and together. Then Al sang, Love'll make ya do right/love'll make ya do wrong/Make ya come home early/Make ya stay out all night long/Talkin bout the power of love .
On Saturday afternoon, the sun was merciless, but I was taken by poly-rhythms palpitating over the crowd. In front of a white tent, a toned woman in a cream-colored midriff and matching pants sashayed to the beat, arched her back, whirled around. Her caramel dreadlocks swept her shoulders. All the while, she held out a sky-blue kettle for tips. Stick a dollar in and her lips would melt into a smile that rivaled the brightness of the day. A multi-racial five-piece percussion ensemble provided the hypnotic rhythms as the woman, apparently part of the set, collected the money. Her kettle filled up fast.
But I couldn't watch too long because there was no shade. And I had to make my way to the main stage to check out this new cat named Donnie.