When you go and see a legendary musician, especially one who had his first hit almost forty years ago, and who released his first album a half century ago, you can’t be sure of what you’re going to get. All too often, ‘legends’ disappoint, being mere shadows of their former selves and struggling to recreate the magic of the past. Along with the familiar looks, the voice goes and it all ends up being a bit sad. Fortunately, when it comes to George Benson, it was nothing of the sort.
Fresh from an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the 72-year-old from Pittsburgh brought his European tour to the UK beginning with two dates at the Dome. With tickets priced at £67.50 it was an expensive night out, but I’ve no doubt everyone who was there thought it worth it.
The first thing you have to say is just how good he looks. He certainly defies nature and, if the lights falls kindly, appears much the same as he did back in the day. Indeed, for most of the time you have to pinch yourself that he’s actually a septuagenarian. What also strikes you as soon as his six-piece band strike up is just how good the sound is. Now the sound at the Dome is usually very good, but this was exceptional, Indeed, it reminded me of the sound quality of James Taylor’s Brighton Centre gig last year, which was almost certainly the best I’ve ever heard. It’s rare when the sound clarity is as perfect as this, when you can hear every single instrument, without any of the players just lost in the overall mix.
Indeed, there were other comparisons with that James Taylor gig. Commercially, both artists’ best days are behind them, neither have troubled the charts for a long time, but both have amassed a portfolio of timeless songs that only they can perform. With Taylor, it’s all about the voice, with Benson, it’s the voice and that luscious guitar sound. The other thing they have in common is they don’t skimp on hiring great musicians. Those on stage at the Dome were clearly all skilled players and their playing really elevated this gig. Indeed, all of them shone at one time or another and despite having some big personalities on stage, rarely was the main man overshadowed. The fact it did happen on occasion, said much about George Benson’s modesty.
Visually, things were pretty modest too. The staging was restricted to just three swags, which were subtly illuminated in a muted palette throughout. The stage lighting was similarly restrained, a follow spot picking out Mr Benson and, for much of the time, the audience were lit brighter than the musicians onstage. As is the wont at gigs like this, everyone onstage was in black, the only exception being George’s blue striped waistcoat. The lack of visual dynamics meant there were no distractions from the music and, as much as I usually like to witness some kind of treat for the eye, this stripped back approach perfectly suited the performance.
Having been less than prolific in recent years, it’s only when you go to a George Benson gig that you realise just how many hits the man has amassed and it’s no surprise that the big ones like ‘Give Me The Night’ ‘Turn Your Love Around’ and ‘Lady Love Me (One More Time)’ had everyone out of their seats and dancing. I have to say, despite their advancing years, (the songs, as well as the majority of the audience) mostly stood up well. Being played by top notch musicians also helped give them a contemporary sound. For a lot of the time, George sang without his guitar. His voice is still as smooth and soulful as it always was and he displayed quite a vocal range, including of course the scat style he has become famous for. That said, there were times when he overplayed that card and it bordered on the irritating.
But you can forgive him a few over-indulgences when he was so clearly enjoying himself. And even if some of the sacharine-coated ballads verged on Vegas cabaret, every time he picked up that trustee guitar, all was quickly forgiven.
Now every guitarist aspires to have their own signature model, and George was playing his very own signature model: the vintage-style GB10 from Ibanez. It looked good and sounded even better. Every note has that immediately identifiable sublime George Benson tone, No wonder he’s been dubbed one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. But as great a guitarist as he is, he always avoids doing anything flashy. Everything is effortless and understated.
On the night we did get one memorable guitar solo, but it didn’t come from George. Instead it was played by Michael O’Neal. the “other” guitarist on stage. Apart from having the daunting task of playing guitar in George Benson’s band, he contributed a tasty solo that wouldn’t have been out of place in a rock show. Indeed, allowing each of the musicians to showcase their talents was one of the nicest – and perhaps most surprising – things about this gig.
All the players excelled, but two really stood out. First was drummer Khari Parker. As well as providing the beating heart to the songs, during ‘On Broadway’ he was given the spotlight and produced a spectacular drum solo that received the biggest ovation of the night. No wonder people say he’s Chicago’s best drummer!
But as good as he was, there was someone else even better. And she also played percussion. Her name was Lilliana de los Reyes and, for me, she was one of the highlights of the show. But it was a slow-burn attraction. At first, you think she’s just a backing singer with a nice voice, who bangs a few instruments, but a few songs in becomes clear her voice is more than just nice and her percussion is adding a subtle vibrancy to the music. At one point, she joined George for a brief duet which allowed her vocal chops to come to the fore. And when George left the stage after ‘Give Me The Night’, the band kept playing with Ms de los Reyes taking over lead vocals. It was a tantalising glimpse of something special.
What was abundantly clear that being a great musician himself, George Benson knows a great musician when he hears one and those who were lucky enough to be at the Dome, not only got to witness a true legend on stage, but also have the pleasure of listening to some wonderful musicians at the very top of their game.
Of course, whenever he picked up his guitar and played George on his own was worth the price of admission. He doesn’t say a lot, but on the rare occasion when he did, it revealed – even at the ripe old age of 72 – just how much he still loves playing. “And they pay me for doing this!”
They do indeed George and you richly deserved the ovation. You were, most definitely, all right tonight!
By Gary Marlowe
Follow George Benson at @GBguitar
Photos by Images Out Of The Ordinary