When you have 36,474 songs in your iTunes library, occasionally you’re going to come across treasures you’ve completely forgotten. The other day I was doing the iPod shuffle when the voice of Bill Withers filled my headset with “Use Me,” the opener to Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall.
It was like hearing him for the first time—a magical experience. His soulful, expressive voice that could probably fill any room without a microphone totally captivated me. The feel he had for the groove was so natural and so unforced that it sounded like he woke up singing and happened to show up on stage at just the right moment. And his ability to connect with the crowd is unparalleled. How many performers can get the audience to beg for a reprise of the opening number?
“Use Me” is a fascinating detour for a man who often sings about friendship; here he deals with an aspect of relationships that people tend to disguise with ridiculous phrases like “friends with benefits.” We all go through periods in life when we’re in a relationship that we know isn’t going to be “the one,” so a sort of mutual usage agreement arises. Instead of the silly euphemisms, Bill Withers encourages us to take an honest approach to satisfying mutual needs:
Talkin’ ’bout you usin’ people
It all depends on what you do
It ain’t too bad the way you’re usin’ me
‘Cause I sure am usin’ you to do the things you do
To do the things you do
“Use Me” rocks for over eight minutes once the crowd demands a reprise, and it could have gone on ten minutes longer and no one in that audience would have complained. Still, if there’s one dominant theme in Bill Withers’ music, it’s the notion that friendship is something that is built to last. “Friend of Mine” expresses the sentiment that real friendship is a human commitment to work together towards mutual understanding—and a bond that creates a mutual obligation to respect differences. How different would the world be if our petty political leaders took that concept to heart? I love the way Bill uses the song to introduce his friends in the band, taking care of an often tedious concert ritual while keeping the groove alive.
With no introduction or fanfare, Bill launches into “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Given the sheer quantity of songs written about the agony of separation, I’ve always found it amazing how this song rises above the level of cliché. It’s all in Bill’s performance: you can hear him living the pain and the loneliness of the experience. When he belts out that couplet, “Hey, I oughtta leave the young thing alone/But ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” I feel my knees buckle at the sheer force of the moment. I would have loved to have experienced that sensation in such a glorious venue as Carnegie Hall.
Bill Withers is not only a great singer but also the master of song introduction. Wisely eschewing an intro to the big hit, he gives a tour de force introduction full of humor and tenderness when presenting the marvelous “Grandma’s Hands.” I wish every band in the world would listen carefully to this album, if only to learn that there’s a better way to introduce a song than giggling at inside jokes, making obscure references or mumbling self-consciously about nothing at all. Listen, people! This is how to set the stage:
Another thing I love about Bill Withers is that he integrated the acoustic guitar with soul music. “World Keeps Going Round” demonstrates the brilliance of this move, not only in the sound, but in the simple fact that acoustic guitar makes a song seem more accessible to the average fan. Hey, that’s a song I could learn to play! When the band picks up the groove and Bill hits his stride, though, the acoustic guitar won’t cut it, so it fades out of the picture and lets the bass and drums do the work they were designed to do. Sweet arrangement!
“Let Me In Your Life” features another killer introduction that I will transcribe here to honor the sheer sensitivity of the man. He gets it that women take a lot of shit from loser guys, leaving them hardened and skeptical about relationships with the male half of the species:
A lot of cats get up at an age around in their early thirties and they start to think of like, lifetime companionship. And that’s when they start to meet ladies who are not too prone to trust anybody—and they got plenty of history to prove to you why they shouldn’t trust nobody. (Applause) But at that time in your life you’re saying, “Hey, but, I didn’t know you then when all that stuff was going down. Put them other cats away and let me try to make something in your life.”
Dudes! If you can communicate with the sincerity of Bill Withers, we’re listening! The tenderness and vulnerability he displays in this lovely ballad is something we ladies find irresistible, because we know that it’s hard for you to get over the myth that boys don’t cry. Let it go . . . just let it go.
“Better Off Dead” gets us back to funky (damn, this band is tight!) with a tale of a guy who knows he’s blown it with his drinking problem and is contemplating suicide now that she’s gone. The lyrics describe the classic black hole of alcoholism, where no matter what you do, there ain’t nothing you can do. The unrelenting honesty of this song is remarkable, and Bill delivers the vocal with a powerful sense of frustrated inevitability. It’s followed by a stronger friendship song, “For My Friend,” a song consisting of only eight lyrical lines . . . but when delivered with the passion and force of Bill Withers, are transformed into an epic performance:
One of us has to say he’s sorry
Or we will never be friends again
Let’ s have a drink and talk it over
I want to keep you for my friend
We’re here today and gone tomorrow
None of us knows when life will end
I’ve said some things that caused you sorrow
But I want to keep you for my friend.
Recorded just prior to one of the many alleged ends to the Vietnam War, “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is a heart-wrenching tribute to a kid who lost an arm in the conflict. Bill Withers tells us that war “is one big drag,” a human development that reduces the significance of the individual to zero. The absurd impersonal nature of a life-or-death struggle is vividly captured in the lines, “Strange little man over here in Vietnam I ain’t never seen, bless his heart/Ain’t never done nothing to/He done shot me in my shoulder.” The soft humming in the background emphasizes the human tragedy better than anything played on a tinny bugle:
Concerts come with loaded with fan expectations, and one of the most durable expectations is that the artist will do all their big hits so the fans can go home and brag to their friends about what a great experience it was. Personally, I often wish the artist wouldn’t do the big hits, because they often perform them in a perfunctory way that rarely achieves the experience of the original. That was certainly not the case with “Lean On Me” at the Carnegie Hall concert. What you hear is fascinating: the familiar piano riff and humming . . . the audience begins to clap immediately . . . then Bill enters with the low-register vocal that opens the song and what you notice is that his voice is slightly trembling, as if he’s anticipating the moment to come. And man, does it come! When he goes up high to sing “Lean on me . . . ” I get chills up and down my spine and tears in my eyes. He attenuates his voice perfectly to give it more power, but not overwhelming power—he hits just the right attitude, just the right dynamics, just the right notes and just the right feel. The excitement rises another notch with the chorus and the crowd is totally in tune with the groove . . . the band stays tight throughout . . . then a fade and another reprise as Bill calls out, “Y’all sing good, let me hear you do that one more time!” Absolutely one of my favorite performances ever.
What else can the guy do? Well, he’s got the sweet-strummed mover “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” for one. What’s amazing about this track is that Bill certainly didn’t leave it all behind with “Lean On Me,” because the energy in this vocal is undeniable. Melvin Dunlap is fabulous on the bass, and The L. T. D. horns come in on cue with just the right touches. The crowd gradually quiets down for the stunningly beautiful song of lost love, “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” where the strings are as striking as anything George Martin ever did and Raymond Jackson’s piano support is exceptional. And can Bill Withers hold a note? My god, I think this man was blessed with the spirit that makes anything possible.
“Let Us Love” gets us back to swaying and grooving, but it’s really the warm up for the album’s closer, the medley “Harlem/Cold Baloney.” The crowd is into it from the get-go, and the build-up through the three verses (summer night, winter night, Saturday night) as they keep raising the key by half notes is frigging fabulous. It’s the “music can cure the blues” theme, it’s the hope in the face of despair motif . . . but it’s really all about just getting into the music and letting your body move and allowing your soul to soar along with Bill Withers. The crowd participation in the second half is as good as it gets—it’s hard to believe that they weren’t hired for the occasion, because they sound so wonderful! Shit, do they get into the music! Rarely does a performer hold a crowd in the palm of his hand like Bill Withers, who fulfills his stated wish and leaves them all singing.
Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall is a ringing confirmation that so-called feel-good music has enormous power and that a positive orientation to the world doesn’t mean you’re living in Fantasyland. It’s ironic that one of the most joyful records you will ever hear deals with the tragedy of war, the loss of loved ones, the pain of separation, the ugly fruits of prejudice and the horrors of addiction. Bill Withers didn’t turn his head away, but faced those evils by capturing the unadorned human experience in his music. When he’s singing, you know that this is a man who wants to reach out to you, have some fun with you and help you remember that despite the too frequent appearance of pain and ugliness in our world, life is a precious and wonderful thing.