Closing out the Paetec Jazz Festival, headliners Al Green, Little Richard and B.B. King delivered casual performances Saturday night that sought to establish intimacy with the audience at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion rather than showcase the skills that made them legends.
While these musical giants really have nothing to prove, I wanted to hear more of the music that cemented their fame. Green is perhaps the last great soul man left in a line that included Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye; Richard is the self-proclaimed "architect of rock 'n' roll," and King is, well, king of the blues, a title he has earned after nearly 60 groundbreaking years in the business.
Green, who at 60 was the youngest musical giant on the bill, gave the liveliest, albeit unfocused, performance. Decked out in a black tuxedo with cummerbund, white gloves and a big gold star of David hanging from his necklace, the Arkansas native spent the first half of his set laughing, rushing through newer songs and delivering long-stemmed red roses to women in the audience. Then, he led his mighty 12-piece band through a charged gospel medley that included a downhome rendering of "Amazing Grace" and "Nearer My God to Thee."
"I came to have a good time. Somebody say, 'Amen!'" the singer-songwriter shouted before launching into a string of his evergreen hits from the 1970s, including "Let's Get Married," "Let's Stay Together" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart."
Green is still an incredible singer, his range as strong and expansive as it was more than 30 years ago. But on stage, the artist was musically scattered, jumping from gospel to secular and back again. In Saturday's show, he inserted a long medley of Motown and soul classics from the early '60s such as the Temptations' "My Girl" and Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" to the delight of the mostly middle-age crowd that packed the house. He sang them remarkably. But Green's catalog is so rich that a medley of co-opted soul hits was completely unnecessary.
Next up, Little Richard gave the kind of loose, self-aggrandizing show to be expected from him. Although he's a rock pioneer, he has long become a parody of himself. However, at 74, his antics aren't as over-the-top as they used to be. In a sparkly silver and purple iridescent suit and glittery gold boots, Richard certainly looked the part of grand star. But time has caught up with him: Hunched over on crutches, he hobbled out on stage and an assistant helped him to the piano.
Once there, the Georgia-born artist banged out his innovative mid-'50s hits - "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Tutti Frutti" and "Lucille" - with fervor. His loud, screaming voice rang out over his high-octane 10-piece band that included two powerful drummers. Midway, Richard requested "a big, fat juicy white lady and a big, fat juicy black lady" to join him on stage. But instead, he allowed a racially mixed bunch of more than 30 people, men and women, to come on and dance as he and the band barreled through "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll."
Before ending his nostalgic, slightly corny set, Richard doled out beauty regimens ("Use egg whites and olive oil around the eyes," he advised) and instructed stagehands to pass out paperback copies of Finding Peace Within, a Bible-based book of inspirational thoughts.
Blues master King, the star of Saturday night's lineup, was preceded by two swinging instrumentals from his eight-piece band that included four horns. At 81 and diabetic, King still performs one-nighters regularly, which is amazing given his physical limitations. He sits throughout his show, cradling "Lucille," his famous guitar, and delivering long monologues between ringing, pointed solos on his instrument.
"You've heard a lot of music tonight. Just stay with me," he said, then told about seeing a light bulb for the first time at age 16.
His stories were warm and family-friendly, his singing still powerful. But you couldn't hear much of it as his laidback performance was beset by technical problems. His mic frequently cut in and out. At one point, the audience booed (aimed at the soundmen seen scrambling at the right of the stage) and King half-jokingly shook his fist at the crew. But once his mic was fixed, the band overpowered him. The arrangements were bloated, the horns excessive. King probably would have been more affecting backed by just a rhythm section.
Saturday night's last free show at the Power Plant Live! plaza featured the New Orleans jazz-funk outfit Bonerama. Led by four trombonists backed by a tuba player handling the bass parts, a drummer and guitarist, the band delivered an engrossing show to a full, enthusiastic crowd of mostly college-age folks.
James Brown and Tower of Power are clearly the group's chief influences. But the band's repertoire wasn't limited to just funk. It also delivered a pumped-up cover of the Eagles' "The Long Run" as the audience drank and danced the night away.