Green's Day

The Alternative Nation discovers the Rev. Al Green

Word has it that Lollapalooza maestro Perry Farrell was quite keen on adding the world's most righteous reverend -- Al Green -- to the lineup of this summer's Alternative Nation shed tour.

Farrell almost got his man: Green "was approached, and he very much wanted to do it," a Lollapalooza publicist confirms. But feet dragged, and Green couldn't wait. "By the time they decided, we just couldn't do it," says Green's agent, Marshall Reznick. "It had nothing to do with money or anything like that."

Cut to the expression that corkscrewed Green's kisser on the record jackets of his early 1970s LP masterpieces. In those photos, his mouth is wrenched skyward, as if caught on some meddlesome fishhook; his eyes look like they foresee the steaming plate of grits a suicidal girlfriend hurled at him in 1974. No doubt that's the look of bewilderment Green would've been wearing all summer long had his bus joined 1995's caravan of cool.

An up-to-the-minute fashion plate in his day, sporting a basketball-size fro and collars wide enough to pull up into a 'do-rag, Green has been a man of the cloth for well over a decade now, performing his hallelujah choruses in dapper white satin suits with matching silk gloves. Yet no matter what he might make of this year's models, the certifiably flaky Green is one of the few members of the clergy who could spread the gospel to the sons and daughters of Dennis Rodman. This is a man who inverts tradition by giving gifts to his admirers, anything from roses to the shoes off his feet. Even alongside fragile Lollapalooza personalities like Sinead O'Connor, Beck, or David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, the jangling, frenzied, vacantly grinning Green would surely have seemed a few wafers short of Communion.

Instead, Green brings his otherworldly falsetto to this weekend's seventh annual New Orleans by the Bay festival at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, headlining Friday night's kickoff show before jetting overseas to tour Europe's summer concert circuit. Though Green's records for the Hi label are touchstones of Memphis soul, his popular gigs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest mean he's often tapped to perform at like-minded events such as the upcoming three-day N'Awlins jubilee.

In pursuing Green for Lollapalooza, Farrell was acknowledging an underappreciated talent, a man whose gloriously acrobatic voice box led a supple band of musicians -- Teenie Hodges on guitar, Hodges' brothers Leroy and Charles on bass and keyboards, respectively, and the nonpareil Al Jackson on drums -- through a remarkable run of crossover successes, seamless hip-huggers like "Tired of Being Alone," "You Ought to Be With Me," and "Look What You Done for Me" that have been prime sample fodder for hip-hoppers like Arrested Development and Eric B. & Rakim. Apparently, snagging Green for the Lollapalooza lineup was being discussed as far back as last fall -- just around the time that director Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction careened onto movie screens nationwide, with Green's most enduring hit, "Let's Stay Together," serving as one of its signature tunes.

In Bruce Willis' first scene in the movie, his character, prizefighter Butch Coolidge, fixes a steely glare on off-camera crime kingpin Marsellus Wallace. As Butch bitterly absorbs Marsellus' instructions to take a dive in the fifth round of his upcoming bout, "Let's Stay Together" shuffles along in the middle ground, smoothing the pile of the deep red velour lounge where their meeting is taking place. In hindsight, the song proves to be much more than aural drapery: It raises the curtain on the gruesome string of events that will bind Butch and Marsellus in improbable fraternity.

The Pulp Fiction soundtrack was dominated by that track. Certainly, the film showcased other powerful songs: Dick Dale's "Misirlou" set the movie's rough-and-ready tone at its outset, and Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man" punched up the anticipation level as John Travolta prepared to meet devil girl Uma Thurman. But "Let's Stay Together" defined parameters of pride, duty, and morality, addressing each of Pulp Fiction's sleazy relationships as its long legs strode purposefully through an extra-long, nearly immobile take.

Like that classic song, Green's best material -- recorded during an astonishingly fertile five-year period with producer Willie Mitchell -- remains fresh after countless listens. The two's most ethereal compositions had soulful gravity, while their mad dashes were deceptively sweet. Long out of print, Green's Hi albums have been steadily reissued during the past year and a half by EMI's The Right Stuff imprint; readily available once again are albums like Al Green Gets Next to You, Al Green Explores Your Mind (which includes the original "Take Me to the River"), and the five-star gems that produced the title cuts "Call Me" and "Let's Stay Together." Slow-jam revivalists have scarfed up over 100,000 copies of Green's I'm Still in Love With You reissue. All of the tunes on these releases -- whether they be hits, near misses, Christian yearnings, or covers of Willie Nelson or the Bee Gees -- are cloudless skies for Green's swooping flights of fancy with the human voice.

And now word comes through the pipeline that Green's overdue new album, his first record for MCA and his first R&B record in years, will be an autumn release. Recorded piecemeal, on jaunts to England, New York, L.A., Memphis -- even San Rafael -- it will feature Smokey Robinson's "Don't Look Back," appearances by Jodeci and the ubiquitous Memphis Horns, and production handled in part by David Steele and Andy Cox of the Fine Young Cannibals. In performance, Green's lush tenor hasn't lost any of its flexibility; let's hope his return to secular recording will be equally age-resistant.

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