Sometimes, no matter how great a songwriter or performer an act is, things just never work out in the studio, and it takes a live album to truly reveal their greatness and go on to become their trademark release.
Now let’s get one thing straight, Bill Withers is not without great studio albums, intact he released some unbelievably brilliant ones, but his most definitive release is 1973’s Live at Carnegie Hall, on which the man, his band and their audience all sound like they’re having one of the most flat out enjoyable nights of their lives.
The band’s ensemble playing is that elusive tight yet loose sound, and more emphasis is put on Withers’ top draw songwriting than you would imagine on a live album. Withers himself sounds completely at ease with his audience, the consummate performer and ever emotive vocalist, the connection he has with his band and his audience has a tangible, almost tactile, quality about it. From the moment the album starts, Withers has his audience in the palm of his hand, and the audience pay rapt attention to one of the greatest soul performers in the history of popular song.
Much of Withers’ easy charm can be put down to the fact that he was in his early 30s, and had already had a military career and worked as a machine assembler before he’d had his breakthrough hit with “Ain’t No Sunshine” in 1971. It’s also a measure of Wither’s pragmatism that he refused to quit his factory job when he had his first big hit, as he was well aware of how painfully fickle the music industry could be. It’s this combination of intelligence and maturity that allowed Withers to come across as one of the most engaging and amiable soul performers of the 70s, and it’s the lifeblood that pumps through Live at Carnegie Hall as he jokes around with his fans and gets the very best out of his band.
There’s no histrionics or superstar posturing throughout Live at Carnegie Hall, the emphasis is on Withers’ talents as a singer, songwriter and engaging everyman. While he was never going to be as cool or edgy as James Brown or Marvin Gaye, or any of the other legendary soul performers, he offered something utterly relatable and easy to empathise with. He never comes across as the untouchable superstar, just one of the nicest men you’ve ever met enjoying the fact that he’s employed to do something he loves, and really, isn’t that what we’re all striving for at the end of the day?