At the age of 73 ten-time Grammy Award winner George Benson shows no signs of slowing down. He ended a sell-out UK tour this week at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and we were there to witness the living legend live.
George Benson began his career as an eight-year old boy, performing in nightclubs and on street corners in his native Pittsburgh. Now, six decades later, he is now one of the most beloved artists and musicians of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is a testament to the enduring popularity of George Benson – who’s biggest UK hit was the 1983 ballad ‘In Your Eyes‘, and who’s last appearance on the UK Charts was in the late nineties – that he sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall in a matter of a few weeks.
Opening the show for Benson was British jazz singer Polly Gibbons, a rather good vocalist who’s a regular performer at Ronnie Scott’s and who was nominated for a BBC jazz award in 2006. She warmed up the crowd with a three-piece band performing songs from her own albums, as well as classics including a lovely rendition of ‘Since I Fell For You‘.
Before long however it was time for George Benson to grace the stage with this six piece band opening his set with a blistering six-minute version of his classic groove ‘Love X Love‘. From that moment on Benson had the capacity crowd in the palm of his hands. And for the next hour and a half Benson performed nearly all of his greatest hits and fan favourites.
Following hot on the heels of ‘Love X Love‘ was his 1976 instrumental hit ‘Breezin’‘, a song originally written by Bobby Womack and originally recorded by Gabor Szabo. Benson performed the instrumental with all the brilliance of the record, supported by his tight-knit band, and urged on by the fans in the audience. Yet for many critics who have written about Benson, they usually make a great deal of this record, seeing it as important milestone in Benson’s transition from jazz to soul, R&B and pop. Indeed, for many critics and ardent jazz-fans, Benson committed musical heresy with the Breezin’ album. But try telling that the crowd at the Royal Albert Hall.
That said, it would have been nice if Benson had done a bit more guitar playing than singing and sticking to the hits. But that is the problem with seeing a performer like George Benson: he’s done so much that inevitably you’re going to walk away wishing he had performed something extra. We came out of the Albert Hall on Tuesday wishing that Benson had performed a few more jazzier numbers instead of relying on the hits.
But that shouldn’t take away from what an epic night of music Benson provided for us. It was clear Benson was enjoying himself on stage, and seemed to go off-piste half-an hour into the set, gesturing to his musical director David Garfield on keyboards to go into ‘Turn Your Love Around‘. From the opening bars of this favourite, the crowd were back on their feet as if it was the eighties all over again. Then in quick succession, again with Benson shouting out what songs to perform next, came feisty versions of ‘Never Give Up On A Good Thing‘, ‘Shiver‘, and our favourite, ‘Lady Love Me (One More Time)‘. For the lovers in the house, which seemed to be almost everyone bar us, Benson played a couple of his smoocher songs: the Michael Masser produced ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You‘, and ‘In Your Eyes‘.
Interestingly Benson rarely said a word to the audience, but did introduce his funkier version of Nat “King” Cole’s ‘Nature Boy‘. Benson first recorded that song on his In Flight album, and recently re-recorded a more standard version on his brilliant album Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. With his guitar strapped over his shoulder and the band swinging, Benson’s vocals and guitar licks were as one.
For someone who has recorded with big bands and orchestras, it’s slightly odd that Benson relies on synthesised horns and strings in his live sets. Did we miss the real thing? A bit, but Tom Hall on keyboards did his best to synthesise the sounds without making them sound overpowering and cheap. Indeed, Benson’s band is pretty stunning. Longtime members Garfield and Hall, along with Michael O’Neil on guitar (who Benson let do some pretty stunning solos himself) and bassist Stanley Banks (who has appeared on countless Benson albums, including Breezin‘) have been joined by newcomers Khari Parker on drums and the elegant Lilliana Reyes on percussion. The band are well drilled, funky yet tight, working hard to re-create the studio versions.
One of the highlights of the show was Benson’s version of ‘Moody’s Mood‘ which he originally recorded with Patti Austen; Benson’s vocal chops were shown to be still intact, and he invited Reyes out from behind her assorted percussion to duet with him, and she proved herself to be a pretty tasty vocalist as well.
Before long the inevitable happened: George Benson played his 1981 smash ‘Give Me The Night‘. The crowd went wild, Benson took his performance to another level, adding in a two-minute guitar solo that went down a storm. Finishing the song he outstretched his arms with his guitar in his left hand as the crowd cheered before leaving the stage.
Fortunately, after some band introductions, Benson was back, now decked in a bright white jacket to perform ‘The Greatest Love of All‘, originally recorded by him for the film The Greatest about the recently departed Muhammed Ali. Then, as with every George Benson show for the past four decades or so, he ended his magnificent set with his take on The Drifters’ classic ‘On Broadway‘, complete with long guitar and drum solos, finishing just over over the ten minute mark. Then the lights came on, and the venue emptied, with fans on the street back towards the Tube still humming the final song of the night.
He may have relied on the hits, but George Benson put on a great show at the Albert Hall, topping off what has been another successful tour. At 73 he still has the moves, the voice and his ability to play guitar. And long may he continue.