Donny Hathaway: More Than I Ever Would Have Known (April 16th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

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You know, I can be a massive idiot at times–even incurious, which is the kiss of death for other people, as far as I’m concerned. As far as my being a massive idiot, for example, my initial response to Beyonce’s apparently titanic show at Coachella–barring a tinge of awe when I saw my first clip–was, “Y’know, I’m just distrustful of any show that costs that much to stage and attend, and that has that much stimulation outside of the featured performer.” What a starched shirt! Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees when you’re not seeing the trees for the forest!

I’ve tried to make amends with myself and others re: Beyonce’s achievement, because I was just wrong (I am buying that damn BluRay when it comes out), but elsewhere in the day, I also tried to make amends with my conscience, which believes I need to have heard every single great album of the past up to the present day. Sunday, while perusing the index of Rachel Rubin’s very enlightening 33 1/3 book on Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee, I noticed not only that one had been written about Donny Hathaway: Live, but that that particular item was one of the most highly rated in the series. I for damn sure wanted to read it, then, but also that would require listening to it, which I had never done, because I occasionally put too much faith in certain critics’ judgment (we obsessives need someone to help us separate the cyberjukebox wheat from the chaff). Case in point: Robert Christgau’s take. He is not on record that I know of about Hathaway’s live album, but his opinion, which had evolved somewhat as of his last reference to the man’s work, was not mellow: “Bourgeoisification at its genteel worst….” Bob’s word is not as from a god to me (any guy who snubs the Oblivians has problems in my book), but he’s generally reliable, there’s soooooo much stuff out there, and, as Lou Reed once sang, there is no time. Well, I ordered the book, and noticed that the live album had been repackaged with another live set for a reasonable price, so I figured, why not practice what you preach and take a plunge?

WOW.  Even with the presence of a few things that would ordinarily put me off, critical guidance or no (an electric piano, covers of Marvin Gaye–ill-advised at best–and “A Song for You”), I was enraptured for purt-near the duration of the two discs. The live vibe is excitingly intimate, with the crucial critical commentary being the crowd’s en masse eruption into off-beat clapping during “The Ghetto,” one of the many high points in the set. Willie Weeks on bass is like rolling ocean waves beneath Hathaway’s lines; as one Amazon reviewer pointed out, even though the whole performance is great, you can simply be hypnotized and mesmerized and satisfied by laser-focus on Weeks’ playing. And Hathaway himself? I literally had never heard a track of his before. That’s right: in, oh, 46 years of listening to music. He sounded a lot like Stevie Wonder to me at first, without that peculiar warbling effect Stevie’s got; not saying Hathaway’s a better singer, just different. And I quit thinking about Stevie the more deeply Hathaway became engaged in the material, a requirement when you’re trying to get away with “What’s Goin’ On,” which, surprise surprise, he does. He plays the keys with soul but restraint–just surfing nonchalantly atop Weeks’ waves–and keeps the groove going. And if bourgeoisification means, I guess, translating an Al Kooper composition for BS&T to the modern black supper club, hell, I’ll take his “More Than You Know” with my steak Delmonico any damn day. He gets into the nooks and crannies of that ol’ thing–just listen for yourself:

I’m returning to the thing today–it might just be one of the Top 10 live soul albums ever recorded. I haven’t started reading the 33 1/3 tome yet, but I’m licking my chops. My advice to you today: quit complacently accepting that you’re a massive idiot about some things, activate your curiosity, and sample something you’ve heard people raving about but which you’ve been rejecting because you and your sources know better. Now, if it’s Neutral Milk Hotel, I understand, but….

 

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