The idea of the tribute concert is one that sounds practically infallible: celebrate the career of some music legend or another by gathering some of their successful artistic progeny to perform the songs that made them legendary in the first place. In practice, though, it’s trickier to pull off — all these successful musicians have to prepare songs they may never have performed before for a one-time event (for likely no pay) and perform them in front of the people who made them famous. No pressure, of course.
Thursday night’s tribute to soul icon Bill Withers (Lean On Him: A Tribute to Bill Withers) at Carnegie Hall had all the ingredients for a memorable evening: Withers, an understated honoree whose work has become an indelible part of the American songbook, a worthy cause to claim the proceeds (the Stuttering Association for the Young — Withers had a stutter in his youth — which raised over $50,000), a roster of talented performers and a guaranteed-to-please set list. Withers’ Live At Carnegie Hall was recorded almost exactly 43 years ago — “on a rainy night like tonight,” as emcee Rita Houston pointed out — and served as the framework for the evening’s proceedings.
Since walking away from music 30 years ago, Withers has almost never performed — an act that seems all the more unthinkable when considering how universal his songs have become. That’s also why it was more than a little surprising to see the man himself onstage to introduce the evening’s proceedings. Unflappable and funny, Withers welcomed the crowd and insisted on a brief “warm-up.” In practice, “warm-up” meant a very genteel cipher, where Withers, surrounded by members of the SAY Choir (ranging in age from about 7-12 years old), clapped a beat and shared a few rhymes before SAY founder Taro Alexander jumped in with a few call-and-response prompts for the crowd (e.g. “Say Carnegie Hall!”). That was the last music the audience would hear from Withers himself.
His songs, though, sustained the crowd, as each performer sought to re-create Withers’ musical power and simplicity with their renditions of his classic songs. It’s a tough line to walk — trying to emulate the magic of his plainspoken style can just as easily sound dull, its understatedness becoming simply (and underwhelmingly) soft. “Bill Withers told me, ‘Slow down, count your change, call your mother,’” South African singer-songwriter Jonathan Butler said as he sat down to perform “Let Me in Your Life,” his second song of the evening. Indeed, it was more steady and self-assured, filled with the certainty that Withers has made his trademark (even when it comes to his certainty that he will never make music again).
Hearing different variations on this theme, from Ed Sheeran’s boyish crooning of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” to Anthony Hamilton’s deeply funky “Better Off Dead” and “Harlem/Col Baloney,” to Amos Lee’s appropriately countrified “Grandma’s Hands,” kept the night lively while showcasing all the different threads of Withers’ musical influence.
For all the festive atmosphere though, the gratuitous standing ovations and sweetly awkward speeches, the evening’s most powerful moments came with a side of gravity. Keb’ Mo’ captured the blues essence of war lament “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” sharing a story about how he narrowly avoided being drafted during Vietnam. “When I am elected president, there will be no more wars,” he concluded, smiling sadly at the improbability of that promise.
“The music says it all,” Aloe Blacc said when he reverently approached the mic to perform the heart-wrenching ballad “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” It was Blacc who provided the night’s most Withers-esque performance, matching the latter’s sure vibrato and clear inflection. Solemn, studied and subtle, he had the audience on their feet and Bill’s daughter Kori wiping away tears as she took the stage to perform “Let Us Love.” (If there’s a Bill Withers biopic, it seems likely that Blacc would get that call.)
The show’s conclusion, a collective rendition of “I Wish You Well,” brought Withers back to the stage, standing tantalizingly close to the microphone as he danced and clapped along. But just as easily, he retreated to sit behind the piano, surrounded by adoring artists with his mouth decidedly closed, still smiling.