Saturday’s Bill Withers Project season finale of Celebrate Brooklyn had its place reserved on the Great Calendar of Life for a long, long time. Whenever producer Hal Wilner assembles and creates these types of events, you’re usually in for a star-studded lineup of major talents congregating to take part in a moving and thrilling ritual. Last year’s tribute to songwriter Doc Pomus was a very emotional and incredibly well-crafted affair that earned its spot as the second-best concert I saw in 2007. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my anticipation was through the roof for Saturday’s event.
We began our evening at Bierkraft, home of fine beer, excellent cheese, high quality meat, and impressive chocolate truffles. Because Celebrate Brooklyn is the most chill venue on Earth, they let you bring your own food and beverage inside, as long as you leave the glass and cans at home. Bierkraft sells growlers, and in a maneuver that I will not hesitate to label a stroke of genius, I figured out how to get beer from a glass growler into a plastic bottle. First, I bought, emptied, and rinsed a couple of two liters of cream soda. Then we bought the growlers, and in order to get the beer from the wide-mouth glass growler into the small-mouthed two liter plastic bottle, I used a pitcher with a tap spout dispenser as the magic middleman. Gingerly filling up the pitcher to reduce foam, the tap spout worked perfectly to load the two liters. A gallon jug of spring water worked perfectly to rinse the pitcher between pours so as not to contaminate one beer with another. After pouring the two-liter into plastic cups inside the venue, victory was ours. I knew that if anyone had tried to bust me, they would be forced to let me off the hook once they recognized the amount of ingenuity and effort that went into this operation. Its success has given me a whole new outlook on life.
The Wolaver’s Organic Pale Ale and Six Point Sweet Action were complimented by a great sandwich that included some very fancy Italian ham, creamy “Naked Goat” cheese, grainy mustard, arugala, and roasted peppers on ciabatta. For only eight bucks, which includes a small bag of Louisiana’s mouthwatering Zapp’s kettle-cooked potato chips (I chose the Spicy Cajun Crawtaters), this large sandwich is a phenomenal deal. Yes, you do have to deal with a bit of, how shall I say this delicately?…outer borough inefficiency. While the staff may be less than expedient, they do know what they’re doing, and they deliver a fine product. This stellar meal was completed with a juicy chocolate, peanut butter, and jelly truffle.
We arrived early enough to throw down the tarp in the unofficial NYC-Freaks spot just behind and right of the soundboard. Slowly but surely, our crew amassed and morphed together prior to the 7:30 start. Steven Bernstein led a major force of a backing band that included Lenny Pickett on sax and legendary guitarist Cornell Dupree. I have to admit that I was not prepared to be hit with such funky music. I expected a lot of soul, of course, but this was some very funky soul, and vocalists like Nona Hendryx and Eric Mingus paired wonderfully with the super-tight band.
I’ve been admittedly slow to become absorbed by the My Morning Jacket phenomenon that is sweeping the nation, and much of my resistance can be attributed to frontman Jim James’ often Kermit The Frog-like delivery of his vocals. Insulting the vocal stylings of a man who is being revered as a demigod isn’t going to win me any new friends, but I don’t understand why his voice frequently sounds so nasal and far back in his throat when he’s also proven himself to be capable of not singing in this grating way. That said, James’ “It’s Not Easy Being Green” style was in full effect on Saturday, and it sounded absolutely perfect on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the obvious peak of Set One. Somehow James’ unique singing blended with an overabundance of soul to create an ideal fit on this classic slow burn of a tune. (Dear My Morning Jacket fans, before you fire off the hate mail, note that I complimented your idol. Maybe this is a sign that one day I will share your belief that MMJ is the bestist band ever.)
Setbreak saw a minor exodus of those who had youngins with early bedtimes. I understood their plight, but I felt bad for them because they missed one of the weirdest sets in musical history.
The set began with an introduction of Dupree, and the band laid down a nastified funk groove, as the old guitarist soloed over top. It was a righteous moment, and when Bill Withers walked out on stage, the place went nuts. Apparently moved by Dupree’s soulful solos, Withers decided to surprise everyone by singing. He strode out with a mic in hand and sat down next to the guitarist while delivering a few lines of “Grandma’s Hands.” This sequence really sent a phenomenal musical moment over the top. Withers’ voice wasn’t particularly impressive and was honestly a little rusty, but it passionately oozed with feeling and relished every bit of emotion in the lyrics. The seemingly improvised nature of this slice of the show just added to the euphoria, and it became the undisputed highlight of the night. Dear Bands Everywhere, this is how you open Set Two. Take note.
The funk continued to flow deep and thick with Mingus pulling out some freestyling lyrics about war and Angelique Kidjo pumping everyone up higher and higher. She even tossed her microphone down to Withers, who was now sitting in the audience but was still moved enough to engage in another improvised, albeit very short, duet. Everything was rolling along and a good show was truly tiptoeing on the cusp of greatness.
Then the Swell Season came on stage.
I don’t know what makes this indie duo “swell,” but it certainly can’t be attributed to the female singer’s monotone leanings. Perhaps her pitch-deficient warblings can be called “European harmony,” but I’d just call it “lousy.” It was a damn shame because the band and the male singer sounded pretty good, but Yoko did her best to flush their valiant effort right down the drain. Lenny Pickett did have a killer sax solo.
To be perfectly honest, she sounds much better on this video than I recalled her sounding at the show, but I’d still rather hear the guy without the ball and chain:
The vibe was redeemed with a funky number or two before Bernstein brought up “co-producer” Janine Nichols to sing a song. One might think that a co-producer and co-artistic director of such a star-studded event would be able to display audible talent. One might also think that a guy can become rich and famous by waxing poetic in long-winded blog entries about food and music. So far, neither statement has been proved true.
It wasn’t so much that Nichols’ voice was terrible; it was just that Nichols’ voice was not very good. Aside from her possibly “just wanting to get into the act like everyone else,” I see no reason why anyone would give her a microphone. Her ballad was very dull and boring.
But we weren’t out of the woods yet.
The other guitarist (not Dupree) was then introduced, and he sang a song. He sounded somewhere between abysmal and God-awful. It was yet another ballad, but this one just kept going and going and going… Every time I thought he’d show mercy and put us out of our misery by stopping the singing, he went into yet another coda. At this point in the show, I seriously contemplated just walking down the aisle and asking to sing a song, as well, because I couldn’t be any worse that what we had just heard.
The consensus around us was clear: What was shaping up to be a brilliant evening had suddenly gone right into the shitter, as people were leaving in droves. From an organizational standpoint, I couldn’t understand why anyone would craft a setlist that started with such a bang and then degraded into such sludge. What was Wilner thinking?
Everyone had assumed the curfew was 10:00, but that time was already upon us, and we couldn’t see any way that this terrible song from the guitarist would close the evening with a fizzle. Thankfully, Howard Tate picked things up a little bit, but we were still far from the infectious joy of the set opener. The Persuasions then appeared for an acapella “Grandma’s Hands” reprise, which led into the expected finale of “Lean on Me.” This was the moment we all were waiting for, and the Persuasions’ opening was cool. Then Withers’ daughter sang the lead and sounded horrible, begging the question, “Why are people with pitch problems being allowed anywhere near the microphone?” Thankfully, James took over and the song was briefly redeemed before Withers’ progeny sent us spiraling downward again. The song closed with an extended we’re-not-gonna-let-it-end jam, led by the Persuasions, who successfully drowned out the young Withers’ attempts at singing. This jam went on for SEVERAL minutes, and Withers, himself, appeared on stage and walked around to shake hands with every single musician during the jam. We were all holding out hope that he would sing again, but that didn’t happen.
The show ended, and he took the mic to say a few words of thanks. When he introduced Hal Wilner, he said, “Who thinks Hal Wilner and I should sing ‘Just the Two of Us’?” Suddenly, the light bulb went off for everyone—they didn’t play “Just the Two of Us!” Withers realized he was on to something, and he immediately huddled with the band. It was clear that they were going to try to play a song that they had not arranged at all. Somewhat awkwardly, they paused for what seemed to be four or five minutes as the musicians tried to figure out how to play the tune. It was a strange but nonetheless exciting moment. Withers was going to deliver some cathartic vocals that would close this show out with the bang it deserved.
The song began, and it was the younger Withers who took the vocals, which she energetically delivered without much semblance of pitch. She seems like a nice young lady, but in her case, the apple falls far from the tree. We’re talking miles and miles from the tree. I now understand why we haven’t heard anything about her recording career. As for the guest of honor, all hopes that he might join in to rescue this song and provide some correct notes were dashed when he just wandered around the stage, smiling and playing the cowbell. Finally, the song ended…but then Withers let go of his cowbell to say, “Let’s do that again!”
I kid you not, there was a very loud groan that came from the remaining people in the audience. These were not just cynical assholes like me who made this noise. There were lots of super-positive people who never say a negative word about anything who were audibly grumbling. The vibe had become incredibly sour as the ill-conceived reprise began. Some people just ran for the exits, while the rest of us just stood there in a catatonic state. I saw that the clock was close to 11:00, and I can honestly say that this was the first time in my entire life when I actually rooted for the curfew to kick in so the musicians would be forced to stop playing.
It’s a damn shame that what was shaping up to be an incredible night of musical genius descended into such an awful shit pit, but hopefully, the film crew taping the event will be able to edit out the garbage and save the moments of brilliance that occurred earlier in the show. Overall, this night did make me realize that Bill Withers created some amazing music in the 1970s, and I know that I’m going to have to re-visit his back catalog to take another listen to many of these gems.