Gregory Porter - Live in Berlin

Gregory Porter
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The first time I heard Gregory Porter sing live in concert I wept. Twice. The songs were “Illusions” and “But Beautiful” from his debut album, Water. The venue was one of the smaller performance spaces at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, which is to say that the space was intimate and his amber glow voice filled every crevice of it. When he shouted on “1960 What?” and wailed on Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” with a cavernous baritone, the soundwaves reverberated beneath the skin of every witness and was answered with thunderous applause. It was magic. Capturing such magic in a bottle is difficult, but to the degree that the selected material and the limitations of technology allow it, this recording of Gregory Porter Live in Berlin comes close as one can get without buying a ticket. Still, buy a ticket.

The first time I heard Gregory Porter sing live in concert I wept. Twice. The songs were “Illusions” and “But Beautiful” from his debut album, Water. The venue was one of the smaller performance spaces at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, which is to say that the space was intimate and his amber glow voice filled every crevice of it. When he shouted on “1960 What?” and wailed on Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” with a cavernous baritone, the soundwaves reverberated beneath the skin of every witness and was answered with thunderous applause. It was magic. Capturing such magic in a bottle is difficult, but to the degree that the selected material and the limitations of technology allow it, this recording of Gregory Porter Live in Berlin comes close as one can get without buying a ticket. Still, buy a ticket. With the presence of a unique medium like Gregory Porter, there is still a discernible difference between what is live and is Memorex.

Porter’s previous album, 2016’s Take Me To The Alley, is his most successful to-date, charting well in several countries around the globe. It is also his safest and most clinical project of an otherwise intimate and warm catalog that is now five solo albums deep, including this Live project (there is also a collaborative project heavily featuring Porter as a singer, Zbonics’ Time to Do Your Thing). Accordingly, Live in Berlin’s DVD and double-disc CD are both heavily peopled by songs from Take Me To The Alley and its immediate predecessor, Liquid Spirits. This proves to be a mixed decision. Porter rescues many of the ennui causing material from these studio projects by infusing them with a much-needed transfusion of power and vocal majesty, elevating everything he touches with improvisational flourish and charming panache. The downside is the notable absence of brilliantly composed and softer originals like “Illusions,” “Imitation of Life,” “Real Good Hands” or standards like “Skylark,” “But Beautiful,” or “God Bless The Child” from Porter’s Water and Be Good early works. Newcomers to Porter should go back and collect these glittering masterworks of emotionally powerful singing. They served as the building blocks of the Porter mystique.

That mystique is well honed and on smooth display on Live in Berlin. Both “Hold On” and “Take Me To The Alley” are newly awakened by through the rafter powerhouse moments of vocal bliss from Porter’s barrel baritone. The humble caress of “Hey Laura” serves as a worthy placeholder for similarly composed “Our Love” and “Real Good Hands.” The Southern pews of “Liquid Spirit” comes as close to a contemporary Negro Spiritual as one can get today and Porter reverentially treats it as such, respecting the yearning of its freedom calls (“Work Song – Drum Solo” here too is a rare modern day work song in the classical Black tradition). Other highly political moments like “Musical Genocide” and “1960 What?” become swinging electric currents of rebuke and righteous condemnation in the church of Porter. Sweet spots of golden rays come in the watercolor impressionism of “Water Under Bridges” and “Consequences of Love.” In the piano ballad, “Don’t Be A Fool,” Porter’s tender plaintiveness arrives as the second coming of Bill Withers, if with arguably more technical skill than the rustic Withers.  

Similar to Withers’ Live at Carnegie Hall and Donny Hathaway’s Live at the Bitter End, Porter’s live recording is essential listening and a necessary capture for future generations. Porter’s work here serves as a historical document that all of this era was not trap soul and auto-tuned pop vocals. That real singing accompanied by top talent musicianship was still appreciated by audiences and produced for those coming successors to continue a necessary tradition of Black performance and storytelling excellence rooted in love, honesty, and technical prowess. Thank you, Gregory Porter, for keeping that torch burning bright and ready for later passage. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 
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