State Theatre, April 11
There’s a particular warmth in the room. One that exceeds affection for the songs or for George’s singing and guitar-playing. Might it be that many of the couples in the packed State Theatre first kissed, danced or had sex to George’s music? Because this is what sets the 79-years-young Benson apart: performed by others, his amalgam soul, ballads and jazzy funk would lurk somewhere between lounge music and the blandness that whispers in your ear as you ride up 34 floors in a lift. George makes it cooler and sexier.
He still has a voice, too: Teflon-coated, rich and resonant, like Nat King Cole with a shot of Marvin Gaye. If it could sometimes be glib (as were several of the songs), Jimmy Webb’s Witchita Lineman, for example, was genuinely heartfelt, and hosted a glorious guitar solo, Benson’s trademark sound of melted bronze then flaring into incandescence for Give Me the Night. Most of the time, however, the guitar stayed on its stand, and George just swayed and sang and threw in his hip little dance steps.
I don’t recall him bringing a better band here than this one. The all-Texan rhythm section of bassist Chris Walker and drummer Mark Simmons was wickedly funky when required, the latter continuously invigorating the grooves without getting in the way. Three members (including percussionist Lilliana de los Reyes) offered convincing vocal harmonies, and keyboards player Randy Waldman and guitarist Michael O’Neill soloed effectively when George’s guitar was at rest. Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine how you’d improve on the slippery performance side, but surely the music, itself, could be less sugar-coated. That wouldn’t alter its bedroom efficacy.
This was the first international band I’ve heard live since Pat Metheny in the same venue 25 months ago, so a big tick to Byron Bay Bluesfest for bringing back music from beyond our shores. Perhaps I imagined the sex connection. Perhaps everyone was just excited to reacquaint themselves with an overseas musical hero.