Al Green Sony Centre, Toronto ON June 19

Al Green Sony Centre, Toronto ON June 19
Word that the Reverend would be in the house for a rare show, opening night of the Toronto Jazz Festival, had local soul fans salivating. With a well-received new album, Lay It Down, to promote, Al Green was coaxed away from his Memphis church and onto the road. A little unwillingly, given onstage griping about his work schedule ("I had 14 interviews yesterday,” he complained), while he didn’t exactly over exert himself in his 90-minute set. The good news is that, at age 62, one of the best voices in R&B history remains in superb shape. He hits that trademark falsetto with ease, and the subtleties of phrasing that has made his romantic crooning so seductive were also in evidence. He’s also in good shape physically, executing some nimble footwork. The bad news is that the show business routines oft took precedence over the vocal performance. He was handing out roses to female fans from the very first song, took frequent forays into the audience, and bantered with the captivated crowd (his best line was "Want some baby-making music? Put on any Al Green”). His pearly-white smile was flashed constantly, but his rather clown-like bug-eyed expression at times undercut the soulful melancholy of some songs. He gave his 12-piece band (daughter Debra was one of the backing singers) chances to stretch out that they didn’t really deserve. The horns were subdued and the keyboards bland, with little of the crisp Memphis grooves that typify Green’s best work. Many of the finest moments came when Green told them to back off and delivered some vocal magic, as in a snippet of "Amazing Grace.” The mandatory title track and plug for his new album came later in the set, and, unsurprisingly, it was such ’70s classic hits as "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?,” the magical "Tired Of Being Alone” (a set highlight), and "Let’s Get Married” that elicited the most response. To show his solo roots, he sang a medley of hits from such influences as Sam Cooke, the Four Tops, the Temptations and Otis Redding, but given his own lengthy hit list, we’d have preferred more originals. He closed things on a high note, via an extended version of "Love And Happiness,” but then ignored the crowd’s prolonged pleading for an encore. Mid-show, Green had noted that "some people are wondering if the Reverend still got it.” He proved here that he does, but we could have done with a little more of it.