After a long absence from secular music, Al Green — arguably Memphis music's most important living artist — has been busy this decade, with two new collaborations with producer Willie Mitchell, 2003's I Can't Stop and 2005's Everything's O.K., prompting a heavy touring schedule.
This week, at the Memphis Botanic Garden, Green will give his first public Memphis concert in recent memory. Green took time out during a European tour that landed him in London, Madrid, Paris, and the Netherlands to talk to the Flyer about his homecoming concert, the exciting new album he's been working on, and how he ran into Justin Timberlake at an overseas airport.
Flyer: Has your touring schedule increased in the aftermath of these last two albums?
Al Green: Last year we did 147 shows. This year we're doing 130 shows. It was really two things: It was [Green's guest appearances on] the Ally McBeal shows — there was an awakening of something there. And it's the new albums with Willie Mitchell. We've been opening our shows with "I Can't Stop."
And you've been working on a new record?
Yeah. We're doing another album with a hip-hop band called the Roots. I've done two songs with Anthony Hamilton. I got two songs with D'Angelo. And hopefully I'll get two songs with a girl singer. They're trying to pick between Alicia Keyes and the new girl from Blue Note, Joss Stone. It's gonna come out [later this year]. I wrote 15 songs for it, but they can't use but 12.
Everyone says Al sings like Al, but the music is different. The music is kind of hip-hop. That's the way they want to make it, but they don't want me to sing any different: "You sing like yourself. And let us do the music." It's coming off nice.
What was it like working with a younger generation of musicians and producers?
They are so up on things. Quick to catch little things. Anthony Hamilton and D'Angelo just wanted to come into the studio to hear me sing. But I wanted to write some songs. So me and Anthony did two songs, and he did the background on another one. I'm hoping for the best. I want to do a good job. I'm not a very complicated man or extravagant man, as you can see living with me there in Memphis.
You mentioned the heavy touring you've been doing the past couple of years, but I can't remember the last public concert you gave in Memphis. How long has it been?
I've done two concerts at the Peabody. One was for the American Cancer Society. The other was for St. Jude, and that was this year, now. But the members bought up all the tickets. But this time at the Botanic Garden is for the public. I really can't remember the last one before that.
Why has it been so long?
Because I live in Memphis. I kind of like to work other places than where my home is and where the church, the Tabernacle, is. People come from all over the world to see Al down at the Tabernacle on Hale Road in Whitehaven. It's amazing to see all these people come.
Will the show in Memphis mean anything different to you?
For me, I have to be real and approach it the same way I would the show in Paris or London. I have just one way of doing it, and that's to go out there and sing from your heart.
A lot of focus in Memphis lately has been on Justin Timberlake, whose family is here and who claims the city as his hometown.
Yeah, he's my neighbor. His people live out in Shelby Forest. I live out in Shelby Forest. I talk to his mother at the gas station.
We were at the airport the day before yesterday and believe me, coming through the line, going through the maze, was Joe Cocker's band, because he was opening the show for me; Justin Timberlake and all his group — boy, there's a lot of them; and Al Green's band and all his people. The guy at the checkpoint said, "How many bands do we have here?"
So you just ran into Timberlake at the airport?
Yeah. It was nice to run into him. I get to hug him, and he gets to hug me, and there's really nothing else to say. We all went to the checkpoint, and everyone had to pull off their shoes and take off their belts and go through the metal detectors.
What do you thinkP about what Timberlake is doing lately with his music? It seems to have become a lot more R&B-oriented.
What I think is not important. I have to let Justin do what he thinks in his heart is good for him. He has to work out his own destiny, just like I had to work out mine. It's what he thinks about himself that matters.
Now, he's got about three bodyguards who are about 6'-6". I shook hands with all three of them, and, man, my little hand in theirs looked like a little penny or something. I'm going like, "Damn, what do you eat?" And this one guy said [in a deep, growling voice], "People." I said, "Oh, okay. Get away from this guy." [Laughs]
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Well, look, tell all the people at the Flyer and back in Memphis that I said hello and that I also said love and happiness, because that's what the world is made of, and I believe in that. I'm gonna stick to my guns and try to do a great show in my hometown. Me and the band, I mean, we're gonna get down. You're gonna come to the show cause you know I'm gonna rock the house. What do I always do? I rock the house. Ain't no doubt about that. So come on down with your rocking shoes on.
"Live at the Garden"
Memphis Botanic Garden
Saturday, July 21st
Showtime 8:30 p.m., tickets $35-$86