With Bill Withers‘ death at the age of 81, it’s overdue that listeners go back and listen to his classic records like “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lovely Day”, and “Lean on Me”. However, his exceptionally underrated 1973 live album, Live at Carnegie Hall, is unknown to many as one of the greatest live albums of all time. Concert albums can be notorious for being throwaway ploys to sell more records for an artist. This album is anything but that. It feels like an album, rather than a grab bag of songs, especially with the emotional range of Withers‘ performances: from raucously crowd-pleasing to hushed and intimate, this disc feels like a party where everyone is welcome.
Bill Withers emerged at the time of the “soft soul” movement out of Philadelphia, the emergence of soul superstars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as album artists, and the rise of introspective, largely acoustic singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Withers’ music and its popularity benefited from all of these developments, and his maturity as a songwriter and singer helped push each development to previously unexplored territory.
In his 30s, when his first album, Just As I Am, was released in 1971, Withers had lived a full life before he ever stepped into a studio or on stage. According to the All Music Guide, he had been a nine-year Navy veteran before working with producer Booker T. Jones. You can hear the life experience in his singing and his lyrics. Although he could belt out a long note on a song (see “Hope She’ll Be Happier”), he never sounded like he was only trying to show off. He sounds world-weary and wise while acknowledging the heartbreak of lost love. Whether his singing was easygoing but measured in its phrasing (as on “Let Me in Your Life”), the singing and lyrics feel like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.
On songs like “Better Off Dead”, “World Keeps Going Around”, “For My Friend”, “Hope She’ll Be Happier”, and “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”, Withers’s lyrics show an alternative vision of popular music—whether soul, pop, rock, folk, or anything else—where topics like suicide, war, reconciliation between friends, and romantic breakups are treated as adult issues with genuine importance for his audience.
The most obvious example of this is “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”, one of the unique antiwar songs of the Vietnam War era or any other. Withers’ two-minute introduction makes clear that this is no mere rant “about wars and government”; instead, it’s a personal story of an American whose right arm was shot off in combat. The stirring voices humming and insistent piano chords, not to mention Withers’ ripping vocal, make this song all the more poignant. The song sounds musically like a gospel testimony, emphasizing the link between the sacred and the secular in music ranging from Robert Johnson to Prince and beyond.
“Lean on Me” reinforces the idea of the gospel values of communal and individual care for others in a more social, singalong context. Like other songs that Withers had previously released studio versions of, the live result transcends both the song itself—the words and music on paper—and the studio recording. In other words, the performances here make great songs and recordings even greater.
The exceptional bond that Withers had with his audience is on display here. Whether or not this was a typical show for Withers in the ’70s, band members sound in sync with each other, loose but precisely fitting together, and the crowd roars with approval. You can hear the strong reactions to songs like a funkier, grittier “Use Me” and “Grandma’s Hands”, two of the strongest and most unique performances.
Of all the album’s tracks, “Grandma’s Hands”Grandma’s Hands“, famously covered by the Staple Singers and sampled in Blackstreet’s ’90s hit, “No Diggity”, best exemplifies what this album is about: warmth, maturity, humor, laid-back and funky grooves, pathos, sensitivity, audience rapport, and an improved arrangement over Withers’s studio version. After a hilarious extended introduction. Withers further slows down “Grandma’s Hands” and adds understated strings to what has proven one of Withers’s most durable songs to make it still more emotionally resonant. “Grandma never went nowhere but the church, and it wasn’t one of them sad churches where they sing them songs that make you wish you could just hurry up and die and get it over with.”
With all of the wisdom in this song and others, it would be easy to forget how funky this album is, especially at the end, with “Harlem/Cold Baloney”. The song incorporates both the maturity of Withers’ lyrics about poverty and a wah-wah guitar and gospel-influenced piano-driven groove that spellbinds the audience for nearly 14 minutes.
If that sounds like a chore, especially at the end of a 77-minute album, it doesn’t feel like it at all, and it’s a testament to the strengths of this album as a live document and as a listening experience that this music sounds fresh and relevant nearly 50 years after its recording and release. As critics like Greg Kot argued after Withers’s death, this album may be the ultimate example of Bill Withers at his best.