Ever Green still resilient

Al Green is 62 now, but it's easy to envision what the good reverend looked like as a child. When he smiles that familiar high-wattage grin, his remarkably unlined face lights up like a kid who just heard the ice cream truck jingle from around the corner.

Al Green is 62 now, but it's easy to envision what the good reverend looked like as a child. When he smiles that familiar high-wattage grin, his remarkably unlined face lights up like a kid who just heard the ice cream truck jingle from around the corner.

When he laughs it is an unabashed giggle. He continuously interrupts himself to take off on flights of song in a voice that remains equal parts butter and grits, prim and primal. Years of preaching at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis have also gifted him with a unique manner of speaking as sentences spill into one another and octaves rise and fall with varying degrees of urgency.

For instance, of his divided pursuits, he says: "I feel like Al Green the performer, Al Green the pastor, Al Green the singer is the same person sitting right here talking to you. They're the same people. You can't divide up a child. If he's the child, he's the child, you can't cut his feet off and make somebody else."

Regardless of your religious denomination, or lack thereof, you find yourself involuntarily erupting with "mmm-hmm" and "amen" as he testifies.

Ensconced in a hotel suite prior to an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last month, Green, clad in a snazzy velour tracksuit and with one eye on the golf tournament silently playing out on a nearby television, has plenty to smile, laugh, sing, and testify about. His new album, Lay it Down, out yesterday, is a stone classic. It is his third release since hooking up with the Blue Note label in 2003, and, even though the first two albums were produced by the man who co-created Green's early-70s classics, Lay it Down is by far the Al Green-est of them all.

Green's spiritual, neo-soul offspring John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae, all showed up with pens in hand. And the Dap-Kings, the brass might behind Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse, provide the horn power.

That supporting cast reeks of a desire to keep up with the cool kids. And yet there is very little about Lay it Down that could be dubbed "neo". From the title track, which eases you in with silken strings and an entreaty to connubial bliss, to the closer Standing in the Rain - where Green bathes in the redemptive power of love - the record feels like it could've been released in 1977. The howls remain piercing, the crooning smooth, and the accompaniment tasteful with an undercurrent of rawness.

"That music is 2008, but it's of the same source. And you're not going to get away from that."

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