There’s an old saying: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.” Well, nearly 43 years ago to the day, Bill Withers walked onto that stage with what some would assume was not much practice. At the time, he’d only released two albums and, by his own admission (via the documentary Still Bill), had only learned to play the guitar six months before recording his breakout song, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
What came from that performance is one of the best live albums of all time, and proof that Withers was no flash in the pan. His songs were declarations of profound emotion built around simplistic language through practical, relatable experience. And Withers achieved much fame, even after actively and unapologetically dismissing it.
Those songs—“Use Me,” “Lean on Me” and “I Can’t Write Left Handed”—led him to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past April and back to Carnegie Hall for Leon on Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers. Presented by Michael Dorf, who curates Carnegie tributes to artists like the Rolling Stones, Prince, Paul Simon and David Byrne for charity, amassed a cast of all-stars (i.e., Anthony Hamilton, Dr. John, Michael McDonald) to pay homage to American music’s ultimate anti-star.
The event was anchored by a 21-piece band, including famed bassist Willie Weeks and Emmy-winning drummer Steven Jordan, and directed by Grammy-winning pianist/producer Greg Phillinganes. Phillinganes in particular exuded that same youth exuberance he’s notorious for, from recording with Stevie Wonder and touring with the late Michael Jackson.
Withers walked out to a thunderous ovation to start things off, bringing out members of the Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY) to get the crowd going with a righteous call and response. As a former stutterer, Withers has always supported those who also suffered the same, and his display of that dedication on a night that was all about him ($50,000 was raised for SAY from ticket sales) was moving and humbling.
One of the early highlights was Ledisi. The powerhouse Grammy-nominated vocalist brought attitude and confidence to Withers’s paranoid anthem, “Who Is He (and What Is He to You).” With building key changes and a quick splash of profanity (“Who is she, and what is that bitch to you?”) thrown in, Ledisi help set tone for the night, brilliantly embodying the song’s deadpan cynicism and understated anger.
Ledisi was followed by a tender rendition of “Let Me Be the One You Need,” a duet from jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and legendary singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson. Their chemistry was undeniable; their graceful ebb and flow would make one think the song was always meant for two. Soon after, the program shifted to recreate Wither’s Live at Carnegie Hall album from start to finish.
Kicking that off was Dr. John, who lent his distinctive sweet snarl of a voice to “Use Me.” Porter returned during “World Keeps Going Around.” His range, from low-registered croon to explosive squalling in front of a groove-rich arrangement, made the audience hope his next record will be a funk album. Jonathan Butler, who’d opened the show with dance favorite “Lovely Day,” gave a gentle touch to the ballad “Let Me in Your Life”—showcasing the dynamic aesthetics that gives Withers’s catalog such a broad reach.
For the album’s centerpiece, the woeful war veteran tale “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” Kem Bo put his blues/roots voice and guitar to the dirge-like march. It’s a tune that was written from the perspective of a wounded soldier during the Vietnam War, but continues to be just as poignant and applicable in today’s climate. The SAY choir returned with Michael McDonald for what’s considered Withers’s signature song, “Lean on Me.” Such an earnest, expressive routine from one of pop music’s most distinctive voices could’ve surely been saved for the finale during normal circumstances, but more excellence was soon to come.
At events that feature so many talented artists, it’s usually difficult to identify a standout moment. Not so in this event’s case, as Aloe Blacc walked onto the stage for “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” Backed only by piano, guitar and strings, Blacc’s treatment of Withers’s lament of an unexpected breakup was a masterstroke of patience, restraint and emotion. Blacc’s eyes matched the somber ache of a brokenhearted man. His voice had that perfect tinge of folk, country and soul. The crowd was overwhelmed by his epic presentation and rose to their feet before the last note of the song faded to the back of the hall. They expressed their admiration for Blacc again when he returned to duet with saxophonist Branford Marsalis during Withers’s massive collaboration with the late Grover Washington Jr., “Just the Two of Us.”
So many tribute concerts fall into the trap of blindly putting famous names to songs without considering whether or not they serve the song best. Blacc’s performance notwithstanding, it cannot be overstated how much the song-to-singer combination was the true cornerstone of the performance, and Phillinganes deserves much of the credit for that. This foresight was further exemplified with Anthony Hamilton’s rendition of album closer “Harlem,” which found the southern soul crooner letting the foot stomping overtake him and the rest of the band.
As Kem Bo led all the artists in chorus to bid the audience goodnight with “I Wish You Well,” Withers returned one last time to thank everyone. It was another humble gesture, considering everyone else was there to thank him, for contributing to their lives in a simple, yet profound way. Last-minute cancellation D’Angelo was hardly missed.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.