Forty-three years ago this week, Bill Withers stepped onstage at New York’s Carnegie Hall and delivered the greatest live show of his career. He was 34 years old, with only two albums under his belt (just a few years earlier, he was working at an airplane-parts factory), but in that brief time, he’d already amassed a catalog that most songwriters would only dream of making in an entire lifetime, including “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands” and “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.”
The show was captured on his sole concert album, Live at Carnegie Hall, and in many ways, it was the pinnacle of his brief career. He’s been all but invisible since he retired three decade ago, but there’s been something of a Bill Withers renaissance following his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it continued in New York last night when he returned to Carnegie Hall to watch a superstar ensemble recreate his historic 1972 concert to benefit the Stuttering Association for the Young in an event organized by City Winery CEO Michael Dorf.
An absolutely stunning band was assembled for the show, including drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Willie Weeks, guitarist Felicia Collins, keyboardist–musical director Greg Phillinganes and backup singers Cindy Mizelle, Jory Steinberg and Bill’s own daughter, Kori Withers. They were joined by the Antibalas horn section and a string ensemble that expertly reproduced the lush sound of the original records and kept the show moving like clockwork with virtually no dead time between performers.
Merely playing the Live at Carnegie Hall album would have meant neglecting everything but Withers’ earliest work, so the show began and ended with a series of latter-day tunes. South African R&B singer Jonathan Butler got the night off to a rapturous start with 1977’s “Lovely Day,” and Michael McDonald kept everyone’s spirits high with “Hello Like Before.” Ledisi then showed off her impressive vocal chops on “Who Is He (and What Is He to You),” and Valerie Simpson teamed up with Gregory Porter for “Let Me Be the One You Need” — the pair truly made the song their own.
D’Angelo was supposed to kick off the album portion of the evening with “Use Me,” but he fell ill at the last moment. Dr. John proved a more-than-capable replacement, and he infused the tune with his trademark New Orleans grooves. Ed Sheeran had the young people in the audience squealing with delight (and flagrantly breaking Carnegie Hall’s “no cell-phone” policy) when he came out for “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He began the tune on the acoustic guitar, before the band kicked it and brought it to a soaring climax.
Amos Lee spoke about how Bill’s music changed his life before delivering an emotionally charged “Grandma’s Hands” that brought Carnegie Hall to a hushed silence. Keb’ Mo’ recalled his relief at not getting drafted into the Vietnam War before playing the stirring anti-war tune “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” Organizers might have been tempted to save “Lean on Me” for the very end, but they stuck with the sequence on the album and let Michael McDonald sing it along with a choir of children from the Stuttering Associating for the Young. It was the perfect way to add a new element to an extremely familiar tune.
Aloe Blacc may not have been a familiar name to everyone at Carnegie Hall, but his chilling take on “Hope She’ll Be Happier” received the biggest reception of the whole night. It’s the tale of a bitter breakup, and Blacc belted it out like his heart was shattered moments before walking onstage. The crowd was on their feet for a standing ovation before he even finished, and people all over seemed to be mouthing, “Who was that guy?” It was a very tough act to follow, but Kori Withers and Kathy Mattea and gave it their all on “Let Us Love.” The main set ended with Anthony Hamilton’s supremely funky take on “Harlem/Cold Baloney.”
For the brief encore, Aloe Blacc returned for “Just the Two of Us” with Branford Marsalis on sax. Afterward, nearly every guest of the night (minus Ed Sheeran) came back out for “I Wish You Well,” with Keb’ Mo’ taking lead vocals. Bill Withers stepped out midway through and sat behind a piano before he was dragged towards the center mic. The crowd hushed and waited for him to sing, but instead, he merely clapped along, shuffled his feet a little and thanked everybody for coming. He hasn’t sang in public in many years, and he wasn’t about to star at last night’s event.
“The kids made $50,000 tonight,” he said. “I did not make half of that when I played this joint. So I’m kind of halfway happy for them, but if I see one of them driving through Brooklyn with a Cadillac, we’ll have a problem … I’m still amazed that all these young artists even know my name. Thank you all for coming.”