George Benson doesn't need the kid stuff

Music Notes

August 19, 2004|By RASHOD OLLISON

George Benson's "Give Me the Night" is probably one of my all-time favorite joints by the guy. And there are several others I can go on about: "This Masquerade," "Love X Love," his smooth rendition of Heatwave's atmospheric classic "A Star of a Story." Although he was doing groove-dominated jazz for more than a decade before, George hit his commercial peak in 1976 with Breezin, an album that defined the smooth jazz / Quiet Storm format.

His work since then has been consistent for the most part. We can always depend on George, who plays Pier Six Concert Pavilion tonight, to deliver a polished record, replete with his robust vocals and his signature, tricky guitar licks.

But I don't know about his latest effort, Irreplaceable. It's different, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm all for artists switching it up, flipping the sound to something fresher. The record is just frustratingly uneven. If you're a longtime George Benson fan like I am, then you'll be a little surprised to hear the artist, who's 61, singing about "shorties" and being a playa -- basically crooning the kind of trite lyrics we expect from much younger, far less sophisticated R&B stars like Usher, Joe and R. Kelly.

"It's just a statement," George says about Irreplaceable. He's calling from a hotel suite in Detroit. "I hope my [older fans] can appreciate this as just a project and a different statement."

Well, the man can't sing a bad note, so George's vocals are great throughout the album. And his guitar playing is still classy, sprightly and melodic. But those strengths are usually buried in a mix that's heavy on the drum programming and layered, nondescript background vocals. The point of Irreplaceable was to appeal to a different audience.

"The producer [Joshua P. Thompson, who's worked with Joe, O-Town and others] wanted to introduce me to today's audience," George says. "He made me realize that youngsters don't know me. I never thought about it. I just always sang and played my guitar."

I hate it when veteran artists like George -- an eight-time Grammy winner who's been in the game 40 years -- feel they have to keep up with the "youngsters." I mean, the Pittsburgh native is a legend with more than 40 million records sold. It should be the other way around.

But I'll be fair: Irreplaceable isn't a total bust. There are some nice, silky cuts on it, ideal for an evening of low lights and -- to borrow a phrase from my girl Minnie Riperton -- "adventures in paradise." The instrumentals -- "Arizona Sunrise" and Luther Vandross' "Take You Out" -- are pleasantly romantic. But then you get a corny track like "Cell Phone," an embarrassingly lame number about reaching a loved one in heaven by wireless. (Now, this song is supposed to be a heart-tugging tear-inducer. Uh-huh, I cried the first time I heard it -- because I was laughing so hard.)

Again, Irreplaceable isn't a throwaway -- flat and predictable in some spots, slick and inviting in others. I prefer to hear George in more organic, less contrived surroundings. In concert, though, he usually hits most of the highlights from the past, which is what the die-hard fans want anyway. Keep giving us the night and scatting with that guitar. That stuff never gets old.

"With Irreplaceable, I haven't done anything this contemporary," George says. "I hope it says that I'm not a fly-by-nighter. Well, we know that now."

We sure do. George Benson, the singer-musician, can't be replaced. His new CD? Well ... he's done better many times before.

George Benson and Will Downing play Pier Six Concert Pavilion, President Street and Eastern Avenue at the Inner Harbor, tonight at 8. Tickets are $40-$68 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

Rashod D. Ollison

Music Notes

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