By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
It’s usually safe to call bullshit when a critic uses the phrase “late-career masterpiece,” so let’s just say that Lay It Down, Al Green’s latest effort for Blue Note Records, is comparable to the music that the Reverend recorded in his prime. It features guest spots from John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton, and production from the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. Some quarters chided Green for sounding too much like classic 1970s Al Green — as though that were a bad thing. Admit it: This is what you wanted. Swelling strings, sturdy brass and Green’s knee-buckling voice. He’s playing Saturday night at the Greek. Rest assured, the man still knows how to preach.
L.A. WEEKLY: Lay It Down has received your best reviews in decades and had the highest chart debut of your career. How did it feel to get such a positive response so late in the game, and what do you attribute it to?
AL GREEN: The big man upstairs, then all the people at Blue Note, from the chairman on down. We all sat down together and figured out the concept. A lot of folks worked on it, and you usually never get what you want, but the big man upstairs sent us Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend. Sometimes, when you get a bunch of big-name people together it can turn out so snobbish, but everyone was giving their all. Sheets of paper scattered all over the floor, trying to write eight songs in one night.
We had Spanky Alford there, who recently passed. He was such a great guitar player from Huntsville, Alabama. James Poyser played keyboards and John Legend was great. [Green breaks into song.] “Stay with me ... la-la-la stay with me.”
We’ve never had an album debut so high. Not even Let’s Stay Together or I’m Still in Love With You. It’s validating, because we’ve been working out here for 35 years, and you put something together and find out the people like it. It’s the people, man — we’ve been singing all these years and they get this stuff. They’ve been with it since “Tired of Being Alone,” and that was 1971. I had a guy come up to me today on the street and say, “I met my wife in law school, and we were listening to your music then and we still love it now.” So I can’t be nothing but humble and thankful.
Everybody said that I’d never be nothing. But the big man upstairs said, “Let me have him for a year or two and oh, man, you be as wise as you think you are.” My whole life was changed in 1972. I was lost for seven months. I was going to see people, preachers in the middle of the night. I was trying to get some footing, but the only thing I could find was the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the bomb. They get down, that choir. I was watching them Sunday and thinking they’re as good as ever.
You’re still preaching every Sunday?
Is it difficult to preach on Sundays and then go out and perform and live in a completely secular world? How do you find a balance between the two?
You have to keep sacred things as sacred things and the world/work things as work things. One night we might go to Orlando, Florida; the next, we might go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and hop on a 7 a.m. plane. You got to get up at 5:30. Everyone’s got to be downstairs in the bus, and it’s crazy on the road. We have 21 people traveling to perform Lay It Down. We do the new single, “Stay With Me”; we going to do “Standing in the Rain,” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” by the Bee Gees. Then I start fooling around, giving out the roses, and we start into “Let’s Get Married,” then it explodes into “Let’s Stay Together,” and then we do our thing with Otis Redding and then Sam Cooke, and then back into “Love and Happiness,” and then the gospel thing. Just two songs, but the audience goes wild. I guess everyone kind of knows the inclination of the direction we’re going. That’s why you really have to be inspired. We went into the studio at first just to meet one another, not to record; just to see if the chemistry was there. We went to meet at Electric Ladyland Studios, the old Jimi Hendrix studio, and during the meeting, one of these people got on the guitar and Ahmir [?uestlove] got on the drums and [Poyser] gets on the organ, and it was like when Moses came down and said, “What are you people doing, and why are you making a golden calf?” Then he threw the gold in the fire, and out came the calf.