DURHAM -- In the pantheon of downer songs, "For the Good Times" ranks as one of the saddest. Penned by Kris Kristofferson and taken to the top of the country charts by Ray Price, it's as downcast a song as you'll ever hear.
Unless, of course, it happens to be Al Green singing it. Onstage at Durham Performing Arts Center Wednesday night, the Memphis soul icon turned "For the Good Times" into a mildly pornographic slow burn, punctuating his delivery -- lay your WARM and TENder BOdy next to MINE -- with pelvic thrusts. It was brilliant, and hilarious.
Green brought in a 13-piece backup band featuring a sharp horn section, the better to recreate the hits from his 1970s prime. There have been times when Green refused to sing the old hits, forsaking the pop world for gospel. But he seems comfortable doing both nowadays, and Wednesday's show moved back and forth between secular and sacred.
After an enjoyable half-hour from local singer Jo Gore (who showed immense charm while rocking an amazing-looking green dress), the Rev. Green sashayed onstage as his band vamped, resplendent in black suit, shades and red vest and tie. Handing out roses as he went, Green started his set with "It Ain't No Fun to Me."
Despite that title, Green gave every appearance of having a blast. At 66 years young, his voice sounds like it has plenty of miles left on it -- he can still do those high trills, and bear down hard enough to peel paint if the mood strikes. And the years have done nothing to dull the man's charisma.
Showing off a radiant Cheshire-cat smile that could melt glaciers, he'd dance a little soft shoe and prance around, giggling. And I've never seen anyone pantomime music so precisely -- it really did look like he was "playing" the entire band. Dude was so beautiful, wolf whistles broke out between songs.
"For the Good Times" wasn't the only non-soul song that Green recast in his own style. The Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" received similar treatment, as did Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman." And of course, his own hits were impeccable, including "Take Me to the River," "Love and Happiness" and "Tired of Being Alone."
He also showed exquisite timing and worked the crowd perfectly, both during and between songs. In the midst of some banter with the crowd, he quipped, "Better hush your mouth, you got a preacher lyin' to you!"
A few songs prior to "For the Good Times," Green slowed things down and did a bit of wordless scatting, accompanied by quiet keyboard fills. As the song took shape, it turned into "Amazing Grace." Suddenly we were in church, with Rev. Green presiding (backed up by his three daughters, the Green Sisters, who stepped forward to sing). He waved his hand and the crowd began singing, too -- better than most of us ever had.
It was the next best thing to being at a Sunday morning service at his church in Memphis.