Friday, 24 June 2016

"Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall" by BILL WITHERS (Inside 'The Complete Sussex And Columbia Albums' Columbia/Legacy 9CD Box Set) - A Review by Mark Barry...

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"…Let Me In Your Life..." 

Columbia have many world-class box sets in their "Complete Album Series" – but you'd have to say that this BILL WITHERS winner is just a little bit more special than most. And with a thoroughly deserved Grammy win under the belt - it’s time to review the great Soul Man’s legacy - especially his brilliant but overlooked live double from 1973 – the fabulous "Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall".

You can buy the CD in two ways - a 1997 stand alone Remaster on Columbia/Legacy 488987 2 (Barcode 5099748898722) – a disc that gives you the full 14-track double-album onto 1CD (it was originally recorded 6 October 1972 at the famous venue in New York).

But I'd argue that Withers is too damn good to penny-pinch - so I'd advise you splash the cash and get the album within "The Complete Sussex And Columbia Albums" 9CD Box Set released November 2012 to much acclaim. Sony Music/Legacy 88697894672 (Barcode 886978946720) is a truly stunning 9-album set with a 40-page colour booklet that can often be procured for under a twenty-spot. Not only do you get the mighty "Carnegie Hall" double but you nail "Just As I Am" – his debut from 1971 – the wonderful "Still Bill" follow up LP from 1972 – 1974's unfairly forgotten "+ 'Justments" and so much more - "Making Music" (October 1975), "Naked & Warm" (October 1976), "Menagerie" (October 1977), "'Bout Love" (March 1979) and finally "Watching You Watching Me" (May 1985). But for this review we’ll concentrate on Disc 3 of 9 - "Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall" (77:09 minutes):

1. Use Me (Live)
2. Friend Of Mine (Live)
3. Ain’t No Sunshine (Live)
4. Grandma’s Hands (Live)
5. World Keeps Going Around (Live) - [Side 2]
6. Let Me In Your Life (Live)
7. Better Off Dead (Live)
8. For My Friend (Live)
9. I Can't Write Left Handed (Live) - [Side 3]
10. Lean On Me (Live)
11. Lonely Town Lonely Street (Live)
12. Hope She’ll Be Happier (Live)
13. Let Us Love (Live) – [Side 4]
14. Harlem/Cold Baloney (Live)
Tracks 1 to 13 are the live double album "Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall" – released April 1973 on Sussex SXBS 7025-2 in the USA and A&M/Sussex AMLD 3001 in the UK.

The attention to detail in the Box set is pleasing - the first 4 discs sport the Sussex label as per the original vinyl albums while the following five have the red Columbia labels. "Still Bill" has its 'opening doors' front sleeve while the double "Live At Carnegie Hall" also has its original gatefold reproduced. Each card sleeve is now bordered in white but it looks and feels classy (even if the print is tiny). The chunky 40-page booklet doesn’t scrimp on detail either - track-by-track annotation with photos of the albums, rare music press adverts, liner notes by Michael Eric Dyson and even a letter from the great man himself at the beginning about his long musical journey.

But the big news for fans is the stunning new remastered sound carried out by a trio of engineers - MARK WILDER for 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 with 1, 2 and 7 handled by JOSEPH M. PALMACCIO and 3 (Carnegie Hall) done by TOM RUFF. Original analogue master tapes have been used in all transfers and what a job they’ve done... Right from the opening acoustic strum of “Harlem” on his fabulous debut album “Just As I Am” and onto the gutsy pump of “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” which opens the equally brill follow up LP “Still Bill” - the sound quality is truly glorious throughout. Beautiful feel - space around the instruments - clarity - warm bass - not to over-trebled - it’s a top notch job done and makes you re-hear all those wonderful songs anew. 

Like 1972's single "Donny Hathaway Live" LP - 1973's "...Carnegie Hall..." vinyl double has garnished a legendary reputation amongst Soul aficionados. Intimate with his audience despite the venue size - a band cooking - songs that sway and groove. Five of its mainly mellow fourteen are exclusive - the impassioned love songs "Friend Of Mine" and "Let Us Love", the acoustic old-man weariness of "World Keeps Going Around", the aching anti-war song "I Can't Write Left-Handed" and "Cold Baloney" which is worked into a 14 minute encore with "Harlem". "Carnegie Hall" is a whole heap of magic and you can literally feel the audience filing it into their memory banks. When he launches into some of the debut album's finest moments - "Ain't No Sunshine" or the lesser-heard funk of "Better Off Dead" - you can literally feel the crowd loving it - grooving - whopping - whistling.

There's Funk on here too - "Lonely Town, Lonely Street" from the 1972 "Still Bill" LP is neck-jerking excellence. That's immediately followed by the exact opposite - "Hope She'll Be Happier With Him". It's a post break-up love song - tender but also open like a wound as Withers sings "...maybe the lateness of the hour...makes me seem bluer than I am..." 
The cello builds as he belts out more hurting lyrics - "...over the darkness I have no power...hope she'll be happier with him..." His other huge hit "Lean On Me" elicits a whole-house handclap - a gorgeous Soul moment. This is a song that huge resonance and one that often moves me to tears and I’m sure a few were shed as this was played that October night way back 1972 New York.

Somehow like equal giants Bobby Womack, Minnie Riperton and Donny Hathaway - Bill Withers has always been the underdog of Soul - never spoken about in the same awe-struck tones that are routinely given to Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. In my book he’s always been right up there with the best of them - a world class Soul Brother - and this ludicrously good CD Remaster is a way in for us mere mortals to that musical greatness...

"...I loved that old lady..." - he says to the audience as he introduces "Grandma's Hands" on "Bill Withers Live At Carnegie Hall". Well - we feel the same about you mate. Beautiful and then some...

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