Reviewer: RL Bartholomew
Such is the stature of jazz great George Benson that – should he ever choose – he could walk on stage, mumble the titles of his monumental back catalogue and would, no doubt, receive an ecstatic standing ovation. There is not, indeed, any such grandstanding at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall where the charismatic guitarist plays a two-hour set that effortlessly elides boundaries between jazz and pop, country, blues and slick R’n’B.
Clad in a snazzy, black leather jacket atop radiant white slacks, the musical paladin rolls back the years with venerable floor fillers including Let Me Love You, Love x Love and Give Me the Night, all interspersed with elysian guitar solos – as a reminder, perhaps, that there has never been one, but two George Bensons: the unheralded template for Prince and key musical parcener of Charlie Christian, the gone-too-soon-pioneer of the electric guitar.
Benson’s musical interests, however, are never confined to their roots. And tongue firmly in cheek, he plays up a supposed Celtic heritage just before launching a mesmerising interpretation of Danny Boyon guitar, then later, Glenn Campbell ’s existential masterpiece Wichita Linesman. On the latter, the context of Trump’s America and its fracturing communication lines isn’t lost on some. Similarly, a song like Stevie Wonder’s Lately bewails, in a quiet manner, America’s malign political zeitgeist.
A ten-time Grammy award winner, George’s Benson’s remarkable ascent, not to mention his cross-generational appeal, is a storied one. The former child prodigy started playing the guitar in rough clubs from the tender age of eight and began his recording career aged nine. Early in his career, he was tapped routinely by jazz royalty – Lonnie Smith, Esther Phillips, Freddie Hubbard, Jack McDuff etc- sharpening their output with his hard-edged rest-stroke guitar technique.
In 1980, mainstream success was finally his own with the release of Give Me the Night– an extraordinary Quincy Jones-produced album that effectively re-launched Benson as the first and only king of jazz-pop. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The fans at this quintessential Benson gig – diverse and multigenerational- might have been content with the eighties standards and the man himself, but his superb opening act, bluesman Eric Bibb, plus star percussionist and vocalist Lilliana des los Reyes, helps to make this – in Benson’s own parlance – a boss night to remember.
Reviewed on: 18 June 2018 | Image: Contributed