He’s still got it.
Though his 70th birthday arrives next year, singer-guitarist George Benson epitomized youth and exuberance Friday night at the Chicago Theatre, where he tore through his hits at faster tempos and higher energy levels than a large and enthusiastic audience may have been expecting.
Better than that, Benson somehow found new insights in very old songs, delivering them with a freshness one doesn’t often encounter from major performers who have been revisiting their classics incessantly through the decades.
Yet Benson was ill served by a harsh, over-amplified sound system that often denied listeners the opportunity to savor the subtleties of a richly nuanced, gravelly voice. Throughout his intermissionless set, Benson frequently found himself competing with an over-miked band, its waves of sound washing over the voice that everyone had come to hear.
Not that Benson himself was particularly pleased with his vocal work early in the show.
“I’m just warming up, you guys,” Benson told the crowd at one point. “My voice ain’t there yet — but it’s gonna’ get there!”
Actually, inasmuch as one could focus on Benson’s vocals amid the din, he proved musically quite effective from the outset, though definitely somewhat raspy of tone. But in performers of Benson’s vintage, the inexorable deepening and darkening of an instrument often adds to its appeal, bringing new colors and textures to a voice already quite familiar around the world. Certainly that was the case this time.
Benson ostensibly was performing in support of his newest release, the aptly titled “Guitar Man,” but the show dipped just sporadically into that repertoire, instead amounting to something of a greatest-hits parade. When the hits come from Benson’s lips and lungs, however, they’re worth hearing once again.
Exactly how Benson managed to find so much more to say in the inevitable “On Broadway” – which gave the evening an extended, grand finale – might have been a mystery, except for one incontrovertible fact: Before Benson became a crossover star he was a hard-core jazz musician and, in many ways, he remains one.
So Benson improvised melodic flourishes and melismatic turns of phrase, taking “On Broadway” away from its familiar contours and reshaping it to suit the moment. Though this performance lacked the thrilling, sustained, unstoppable crescendo of the famous recording, Benson’s spontaneous re-imagining of “On Broadway” offered something else: vocal and guitar fireworks with an intensity and heat that simply never let up.
Earlier in the evening, Benson appeared to surprise his audience – judging by its muted response – with “Moody’s Mood,” a tour de force of jazz singing. Artistically, this was a high point of the evening, Benson referencing his jazz credentials with a profoundly personal response to saxophonist James Moody’s classic “Moody’s Mood for Love.” Here was a melody line that bounded up and down the scale with abandon, Eddie Jefferson’s celebrated lyrics applied to Moody’s intricate saxophone solo. Only the most accomplished jazz vocalists dare sing the tune – particularly in the wake of Moody’s own revered version – but Benson finessed its twists and turns with seeming effortlessness and a distinctive interpretation.
Benson also looked back to more of his hits, from the buoyant guitar work of “Breezin'” to the imploring vocals of “Turn Your Love Around” to the slow-and-soulful musings of “This Masquerade,” the latter performed with palpable fervor.
Throughout, Benson made his way around his guitar quite dexterously, but especially in an unlikely version of the folk song “Danny Boy” (from the “Guitar Man” album), his poetic solos – complete with twangy notes and droning pedal points – evoking a distant time and place.