You could feel it in the room, a near-capacity crowd buzzing with joy as Al Green took the stage Wednesday evening at Bass Concert Hall: This was an event.
Austin had the good fortune of hosting the legendary soul singer's first concert in almost seven years, the beginning of several shows built around a performance this weekend at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. If the Austin date was booked partly as a tune-up for Jazz Fest, Green's devoted fans at Bass were totally fine with that.
From the moment Green strode onstage with his 12-piece backing band just after 9:15 p.m., armed with a big batch of roses that he proceeded to hand or toss to audience members throughout the show, this was a love fest. That's what you'd expect, of course, from a guy who once titled an album "Al Green Is Love."
Sing-alongs and standing ovations were the order of the evening. Indeed, Green often relied on the crowd to help fill in the choruses, egging them on when they instinctively chimed in as he began Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times": "Oh, you know it too?" Time and time again, from "Amazing Grace" to "Love and Happiness" to "Tired of Being Alone," the audience both supported Green with their voices and pushed him forward, swooning with delight when he took flight toward high notes that he still hits with remarkable resonance at 73.
Green's age may not have reined in his vocal range, but it may have affected his stamina. The lone down side to Wednesday's performance was its length: When he strode offstage with waves and smiles to end a transcendent rendition of his signature number "Let's Stay Together," he'd played for less than an hour. Most of the crowd expected an encore that didn't arrive. It wasn't enough to douse the good vibes of this special evening, but those who paid anywhere from $70 to $250 for tickets clearly would've reveled in another half-hour or so.
A mid-show medley of 1960s-'70s R&B/soul smashes — from Otis Redding's "I've Been Lovin' You Too Long" and "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" to Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "My Girl" to the Stylistics' "You Are Everything" — was tantalizing; you wanted to hear Green take each one of them beyond that verse-and-chorus tease. He went the distance with the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," and brought out two male dancers to draw out the full grooves of "Love and Happiness" and "Let's Stay Together."
Green's last shows in Austin were quite some time ago; he played ACL Live in 2012, Stubb's in 2004 and the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2003. He's never appeared on the "Austin City Limits" TV show, though there's little doubt they'd love to have him. On this night, ultimately, it was enough just to be there, to marvel at the magic of an American music master.
Opening act Tank & the Bangas, a 10-piece crew from New Orleans, helped set the tone with a 40-minute performance that stressed the charisma of lead singer Tarriona "Tank" Ball. Three keyboardists played key roles in fleshing out the group's otherworldly jazz/funk/folk/pop sound, though it was flute and saxophone player Albert Allenback who drew the most attention onstage with his fashion sense — dress shirt, vest, short shorts and no socks — as well as his consistently entertaining stage moves. Vaulted into the national spotlight in 2017 when they won NPR's Tiny Desk concert, the group was a good fit for the bill, tipping their hat to Green at the end of their set as Ball affirmed, "We want to celebrate him tonight."