Bill Withers picked exactly the right time to record his finest album.
Bill Withers picked exactly the right time to record his finest album, Live at Carnegie Hall. He’d released two stellar studio albums, picked up a Grammy, and had three recent singles go gold. Withers had a crack band at his disposal and was at his songwriting peak. Carnegie was a big venue for him (both literally and figuratively), so the only question when he took the stage in fall 1972 was whether or not he was up to the space. If there were any concerns about his readiness for Carnegie, they were alleviated about 5 seconds into the show, as soon as the audience cheers for those funky first few notes. In combining most of his best songs with an emphatic performance, Withers created one of pop music’s top live albums.
Withers retains a complicated legacy. His early work built on soul and even some funkiness. Withers could be hard, and his songwriting was smart and challenging. His later singles (like “Just the Two of Us” and “Lovely Day”) have a softness, an AOR-quality that feels distanced from the first few albums. Those cuts, coupled with Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me” have left a partial impression of Withers has a light-hearted, easy-listening sort of act. That he walked away from the music industry in a mix of artistic frustration and personal satisfaction (he would be fine without a music career) meant that his career ended without a satisfactory closing for fans.
With its 75 minutes of near-perfection, Live at Carnegie Hall knocks down any uncertainty about who he was as an artist. Withers and his band, composed largely of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, are at turns funky, powerful, emotional and restrained (and important element of Withers’ writing). The musicians stay in the pocket at all times; “Use Me” and “Harlem/Cold Baloney” groove perfectly, with both precision and limberness. With an enthused audience and a band capable of matching his songwriting, Withers turns himself loose, at ease enough to ad lib stage banter actually worth hearing, but still focused enough to get into the depths of his songs.
The best of his intros precedes “Grandma’s Hands.” Withers’ funny but warm set-up puts the song in its proper context, making his love for his grandmother apparent while adding gravitas – through humor – to a powerful song. That cut had been a single, but one of the other tracks benefiting from a spoken intro (presumably one added later) was a new one, “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” The song could easily have turned didactic, or suffered from being late in a lineage of anti-Vietnam War songs. Withers stays calm, telling the story of a single soldier and his wound, the subtle instruments and gospel backing vocals framing the tale as the concert hall drops to a whisper and the rest of life pauses.
Withers follows that cut with “Lean on Me,” just one smart moment in the organization of the setlist (it seems likely but not certain that the album follows the original concert order). The shift from dark and slow to uplifting works well. If you’re in a valley from “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” then the climb of “Lean on Me” just goes that much higher. The album ends with a similar one-two punch. “Hope She’ll Be Happier” shuts down everything for Withers’ stunning performance. The song itself is a masterpiece – one of those moments where Withers sounded mature but not old, a hallmark of his art – but coming late in an emotional concert allows its full power to come through.
But he knows enough not to leave us there. The show started with the audience joining in, and Withers needs to get them clapping along and on their feet again before sending them out. The show ends with a 13-minute rendition of “Harlem/Cold Baloney” (the second part of the pairing an interpolation of an Isley Brothers’ cut). The song absolutely rocks on its own, but there’s a small moment worth noticing. Withers teases his audience for, in essence, sounding more midtown than Harlem. It’s a nice, light moment, but it’s also indicative of Withers’ crossover strength. He wrote from a very particular perspective – Just As I Am and Still Bill are appropriate album titles – but he could bring everyone into his vision. Live at Carnegie Hall captured his work at its best, not just by including stunning versions of his best songs, but by providing such a big picture of Bill Withers himself.