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Say amen ... somebody? 

Al Green fails to save our souls

CHASTAIN PARK AMPHITHEATRE, June 29 -- On a beautiful summer night, Chastain Park was the perfect setting for an old-fashioned revival. The air was dry and cool, the crowd enthusiastic but well-behaved and the anticipation high. But there was an underlying sense of tension as the predominantly white and well-to-do audience prepared itself for the traditional gospel sounds of the Blind Boys of Alabama and the spiritual soul of Al Green by chatting, nibbling on finger foods and basking in the candlelight.

What began as barely an acknowledgement of the Blind Boys' old-time spirituals became a full-blown celebration as the eight-member group gradually won the crowd over with their powerful delivery of gospel standards and unusual covers from their Grammy-winning release, Spirit of the Century. Dressed in white tuxedos, the four singers delighted the audience with a stirring version of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" and a unique arrangement of "Amazing Grace," sung to the tune of "House Of The Rising Sun." Founding member Clarence Fountain worked the crowd with ease, and singer Jimmy Carter led a walk through the seats that brought everyone to their feet. By the end of the set, the Blind Boys even threw in a little preaching that was politely received.

As the Rev. Al Green strutted onto the stage to the opening riffs of "Let's Get Married," the good vibe still hung in the air. Dressed in (guess what?) a white tuxedo, Green roamed the stage, pausing to smile and wave, hunkering down as if in prayer, tossing roses to the ladies near the front row and blissfully gazing skyward as he raised his hands to the heavens. Immediately moving from his signature hit into gospel mode, Green continued his stage antics through the entire performance, only occasionally approaching the microphone and only partially singing the words to his classic tunes while his four backup vocalists filled in the gaps. As if oblivious to the reason he was on stage, Green spent more time parading and gesturing than actually singing.

The dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is an underlying conflict in Christian spirituality, and the personal battle that Green has been fighting since the late '70s was obvious. He seemed to be forcing himself to sing the secular (and very sensual) hits that made him famous, often abruptly ending the song to resume proselytizing and witnessing to the captive audience. At numerous points throughout the evening, it appeared that the 14-piece band was having a hard time following Green's lead, as the show seemed less like a concert than a service one might experience in Green's Memphis church. To further confuse the issue, Green welcomed a young woman from his entourage to the stage, who performed an interpretive dance to one song. Moving more like a part-timer from Club Nikki than an artist, the woman's semi-erotic performance garnered a mix of outright laughter or jaw-dropping stares from the crowd. Then things got really strange.

As Green began the popular "Here I Am," three males in matching outfits walked on stage and performed a poorly choreographed dance reminiscent of boy-band moves. Without context or congruence, the dancers served only to distract from the music, and their return at the end of the show (in different matching outfits) was equally pointless.

There were other problems throughout the evening. Green frequently admonished the band to play more quietly, and seemed to be avoiding the front and center position. He frequently gestured to the sound man by pointing at the monitors and making faces. At one point, he asked, "How much time?" and a ghostly voice over the main speakers responded, letting Green know he had to endure five more minutes on stage. Green then proceeded to sing an obviously unrehearsed medley of Otis Redding songs that stumped the band.

Only when he finally launched into his classic, "Love and Happiness," did the band and the crowd get back into a groove. Unfortunately, the sound was cut in the middle of the song, as Chastain's 11 p.m. curfew resulted in a frustrating case of "concertus interruptus."

The dispirited crowd filed out, thwarted by an unfocused performance and a devilish sound system. When Al Green sings, it's clear he still has the voice that made him a superstar. But, if tonight was any indication, whether he still has the desire to deliver the goods in concert is in serious doubt.

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