Ten time Grammy Award winner George Benson returned to the Royal Albert Hall for what should have been two nights of sold out soul.
For many writers who consider themselves serious arts critics, the problem of reviewing George Benson is how do you reconcile the man’s uncomparable jazz chops with the commerical pop-soul of the later half of his career? Well, for those of us who attended Wednesday’s night show, we received a reminder of what an incredible guitarist Benson is. However, we didn’t get any of the promised vocal hits.
But, however, we didn’t know that anything was wrong. For those of us turning up to the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday, we were anticipating an excellent night full of Benson’s greatest hits.
Those who attended his Tuesday night show at the Hall were treated to such, with clips on Instagram and Twitter showing the jazz legend playing a mixture of his jazz classics and his pop-soul hits. But, sadly, it turned out George Benson had lost his voice.
Not that we were told this as we entered the Hall, and made our way to the seats. Given the previous night’s reviews, everyone was expecting it to be business as usual.
The support act, the very talented Eric Bibb, came on as planned and played an excellent 30 minute set of acoustic blues, including one phenomenal acappella song. Bibb, who also supported Michael McDonald on tour in March, made no mention of Benson’s loss of voice, and exited the stage leaving us wait for Benson and his bad to appear.
Benson’s set was scheduled to start at 8:30 and on previous visits to the Hall to see him he’s always appeared on time. But 8:30 came and went, and about 15 minutes later Benson’s band took to the stage before Benson was introduced. No mention of any problems, Benson strode on stage, took his signature Ibanez guitar, and launched into a blistering rendition of ‘Breezin”, his classic instrumental from 1976.
So far so good. Benson seemed on top form, his guitar playing was phenomenal and his backing band were as good as ever. When I attended Benson’s 2016 show at the Royal Albert Hall I wrote that although Benson played all his hits, it seemed to be at the expense of his guitar playing. This time around, Benson ended ‘Breezin” and immediately launched into another instrumental, and it seemed as if he’d somehow got my memo. Incredibly funky, Benson’s ability with his guitar has not diminished with age, and his playing was a reminder of just how good his instrumentals are.
But then he launched into another instrumental, a warning that something wasn’t quite right. Fifteen minutes in and Benson hadn’t sung a note. Then came the news: he had lost his voice. “As you can tell”, he croaked into the microphone, “I’m having some problems with my voices, so we’re going to stick with the instrumentals for a while”. The atmosphere in the Hall suddenly dropped, and sections of the crowd became increasingly hostile as it was clear Benson would not be singing their favourites tonight.
But to his credit, Benson tried to hang out as long his could, reaching into his usually untouched bag of instrumentals. In fact, we were treated to a selection of music that Benson rarely plays these days, from ‘White Rabbit‘ to ‘Affirmation‘, one of my favourites from the Breezin‘ album. The band also played a blistering version of Donny Hathaway’s ‘The Ghetto‘, which Benson recorded with Joe Sample on his Absolute Benson album (a largely instrumental affair). There was also time for performances of Norah Jones’ standard ‘Don’t Know Why‘ and the Michael Jackson ballad ‘The Lady In My Life‘, both of which Benson has also covered on his Guitar Man album.
Half the Hall no doubt enjoyed this instrumental set, as did I. But it wasn’t necessarily what we’d paid to see, nor what was advertised. After all, the Royal Albert Hall’s own website said he’d be playing his greatest hits, most of which feature his silky smooth voice. As a result, sections of the audience left in their hundreds, and some even heckled Benson. One man shouted “BORING” loudly, only to be then drowned out by applause by those who disagreed. Cries of “sing us a song” were also heard, but it wasn’t to be.
Benson did try to sing. He tried to do his trademark vocal scat during ‘The Ghetto‘, but he sounded pretty bad.
An assistant kept bringing Benson cups of what I assume to be warm tea, possibly with honey, to try and revive his voice. But it didn’t work. Then another assistant appeared behind the band, talking at length to the guitarist Michael O’Neil, and seemed to be gesturing to end the set. O’Neil passed a message onto Benson, who then launched into his standard set closer, ‘On Broadway‘. Benson tried to sing again, and to be fair he sounded better, but was clearly struggling and soon gave up. The band played on, but Benson had lost the audience and walked off stage not to reappear.
The band continued and the drummer gave an extensive drum solo, but then another person appeared, presumably the promoter, to apologise that Benson could not sing and that the show would end. Ticket holders were told to keep hold of their tickets and would be contacted in due course (at the time of writing, we haven’t been contacted). The band continued, with percussionist Lilliana Reyes singing, but by then most of the audience had left, disappointed.
It wasn’t announced what would happen, and many fans took to Twitter to complain. Meanwhile, Benson’s date at Southend has since been cancelled and no rescheduled date has been announced.
Credit to Benson for coming out and having a go, but equally the concert should have been cancelled when it was clear that Benson would not be able to sing. Benson was, of course, primarily a jazz guitarist. His singing came a bit later on in his career (although on early albums he did sing on covers of ‘All of Me‘ and ‘Foggy Day‘) but arguably it’s his singing that made him most popular in the UK, and which has sustained his career all these decades later.
Fans who like his guitar playing can be high and mighty about their appreciation of his earlier less well known work, but most of the audience at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday wanted to hear their favourite hits. And, when you’re paying upwards of £50 a ticket for the cheap seats alone, I think that’s a fair demand.
All in all, it was a disappointing night, and one that Benson will no doubt regret. However, we were treated to an hour of excellent musicianship from Benson and his crack band, even if certain members of the audience didn’t appreciate it. The booing and heckling was incredibly disrespectful and somewhat shocking. I’m sure Benson himself didn’t mean to disappoint anyone. Cynically, one might wonder whether his promoters forced him to perform, in order to save refunding the 3,000 or so of us who had purchased tickets. But to the promoters’ and the Royal Albert Hall’s credit, full refunds will be given within 3 weeks to all ticket holders. Meaning, quite generously, we witnessed some fantastic playing by George Benson for free.
In a statement, George Benson said:
“I always look forward very much to my Royal Albert Hall shows, but unfortunately laryngitis invaded my vocal chords and put a damper on my performance capabilities.
My apologies to all my fans, thank you for your support and know that I love you all!”
George, if you’re reading this: galant effort on Wednesday, but we hope you and your incredible voice will be back soon.