Al Green at the Apollo Theater, 10-21-04

rom the ages of 5-10, I was living with my family in a tiny town in Michigan. It was the beginning of my love affair with music, spending nights curled up under the covers at night with my little black GE transistor AM radio, bringing in signals from Chicago and, if I was lucky, Detroit. It was then that I fell in love with soul and R’n’B, when I learned about Motown, when I chose the Jackson Five over the Osmond Brothers in a playground showdown over who was better.

And it was all about how it sounded and how it made me feel. I had no way of knowing what was cool or important. But much of what I heard then formed the foundation of my rock and roll heart today, and is probably why a band with any soul in them whatsoever will be nearer and dearer to me than one that doesn’t.

When I heard Al Green was on tour and coming to NYC, I fell out of my chair when I saw my two venue choices: the Beacon Theater or the APOLLO THEATER. That wasn’t even a choice, was it? And so, with a heart-pounding excitement generally reserved for once-in-a-lifetime events (which, let’s be honest, this absolutely was), I took the A train to 125th Street Thursday night.

The theater is (thank goodness) undergoing an extensive renovation project. However, I was more than a little bummed to get off the subway and not be guided down 125th Street by a gleaming APOLLO marquee, not to mention my wistfulness at not getting that marquee photograph reading “AL GREEN”.

But still – it is the Apollo. I am not so much out of my element as in awe of it. I enter the lobby, and stop to soak up the vibe. I walk over to the orchestra entrance and politely ask if I can just walk in and see the house, since I’m sitting upstairs. And you know, I had goosebumps. I know I have an obsessive, almost trainspotter-like fascination with legendary venues, but in this case, my emotion was well deserved.

I climb the stairs to the upper balcony, passing old tinted black and white photos of the Supremes and Stevie Wonder. I am dripping black velvet and high heels, hair in an up-do, and of course (as I knew), am still outdressed by much of the audience. (I am, however, well-dressed enough to allow me to sniff disdainfully at the emo couple sitting at the end of the row. It’s the Apollo and it’s Al Green, you can wear something besides jeans and that thrift store t-shirt.) The usher shows me to my seat, front row of the center balcony, and I settle in to soak up the scene.

It’s a classic 1930’s theater, slightly faded, but glowing with history. There is a glittery red curtain obscuring the stage. I cannot remember the last show I went to that had a curtain. I know it’s not very punk rock but there is something regal and mysterious about a curtain, the drama of the effect of the unveiling, how you aren’t sitting there staring at the equipment and a bare stage for the half and hour before the show starts.

Mavis Staples opened – starting exactly at 8:00 p.m., promptly, another segment of tradition I also enjoyed – and performed a set that relied on most of her best known material, mostly secular, but some spiritual material as well. And then, the quickest set change ever, the chandelier dims, and a booming voice introduces The Reverend Al Green. He walks on, dressed completely in white, including his bow tie and his shoes, and except for some – can you refer to rhinestones as “bling”? – anyway, a red rhinestone cross on a red rhinestone chain (and we’re talking the rhinestones that are as big as blueberries) and two Stars of David, in descending size, with slightly smaller rhinestones.

That voice! It is so different hearing it live than on record, and I don’t care what anyone is going to tell me, he’s still got it, and I’m not quite sure there was ever any danger of him losing it. He had 15 people onstage with him, including a three-piece horn section and two dancers (who came out only for every other song, and every time, had a different set of matching outfits on; aside from the Rev. Al, they were the only people on that stage not wearing black).

After the first number, I can see the Rev’s (I can’t call him Al, and he’s not Mr. Green) handler lean over the grand piano (which was covered with dozens of long-stemmed red roses that were handed out to the audience throughout the night; I would be severely regretting my decision to save money and sit upstairs by the end of the show) and whisper something to his boss. The Rev then turns around, and zips up his fly, which caused the theater to erupt into rather dignified cries of excitement from the female audience members. (This was the moment when I bonded with the single women sitting near me and we had a great time together for the rest of the night.) He played off it, laughed with us, and went back to the show.

The band. Of course, he’s got musicians who can actually play, he can say “take it down” and they take it down instantly. “Take it down again” and with absolute control, the volume is lowered. “Gimme some organ” and there it is, a riff so beautiful it could break your heart.

It being the Reverend Al Green, of course, he testified. But honestly, I expected it, I enjoyed it, and I was surprised there wasn’t more of it. It is still one of my big dreams to go to Memphis and see the Rev at his church one Sunday morning. He told a story about how they weren’t singing about anything bad, but that when he first started, “they” told him he was going to have to stop singing “those songs.” And that he had to go and pray about that one for a long, long time. But that God told him, “Al, I gave you the songs! I gave ’em to you!”

The Rev sang everything you would have wanted to hear and then some (although at one point, when people were yelling out their requests, he said, “If I sang everything everyone wanted me to, we’d be here for two days!”) He danced. He flirted (okay, he flirted constantly). He spoke repeatedly of his love for the Apollo, how he started here, how special it was. And of course, there was soul and gospel and blues, he sang notes that sustained so long and so beautifully it brought tears to my eyes.

It was absolutely, completely incredible, every moment of it. I sat perched up there in the balcony, at times with my head resting on my arms, folded on top of the railing, gazing down at the stage with joy and awe. When I was at the Fox Theater in St. Louis (another legendary venue) earlier this month, my friend J., who grew up in Missouri, commented that sitting down in the orchestra made her feel grown-up, because when she first started coming to shows at the Fox as a teenager, she was always sitting upstairs. Maybe that’s why, sitting up in the balcony tonight, I felt like I was 16 and had snuck out of the house to go to the Apollo (something I would have surely done if I’d been born 10 years earlier). I walked out of the show with the same wonderment that I had when I was younger and first heard these songs, hiding under the blankets, and using my radio as a magic carpet to transport my imagination.