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José James brings Bill Withers to Calgary in beautiful homage

By Thomas Johnson, December 6 2018 —

Your grandmother probably loves Bill Withers. You probably love Bill Withers too, whether you’re aware of it or not.

The 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is the pen behind of some of the Western world’s most enduring songs, including “Grandma’s Hands,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just The Two of Us” and “Lean On Me.” The influence of these songs is of Withers’ economic writing, wherein brief couplets overflow with catharsis, tenderness, howling agony and almost reckless optimism, and has disseminated to every corner of whatever shape culture has taken in the year of our lord.

Withers himself has said, “What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in.” In that same interview, he said he doesn’t consider himself a virtuoso, even though, by definition, he’s the platonic ideal of a virtuosic songwriter. Maybe it’s that he instead considers himself a constant, an unwavering shoulder on which to lean. Whatever he considers himself, it’s what he’s considered by others that’s so important: a bona-fide legend.

Evidently, José James loves Withers too. Lean on Me, a Withers tribute album released by James this year, masterfully covers 12 of the aforementioned legend’s most durable standards. The homage works largely due to James’s straddling of tradition, keeping one foot firmly planted in Withers’s blues-lore and the other foot a step ahead. He’s a master in the realm of the jazz-fusion and hip-hop that would come to dominate the same market Withers himself held in his palms the previous decade.

James brought this synthesis to the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Nov. 15, with journeyman jazzists Nate Smith (drums), Brad Williams (guitar), Ben Williams (bass) and Takeshi Ohbayashi (keys) in tow. James, whose smoky voice at times echoes Withers’ timbre, while at other times drifts to a full-bellied D’Angelo croon, anchored the quintet as they deconstructed classics, blending timeless blues progressions with the each individuals avant-garde sensibilities. Smith handled the drums the only way they should be played — mischievously. There were a handful of moments where both Williams visibly reached nirvana. Ohbayashi was seen only in flashes from behind the grand piano, blurring across the ivory.

James split the show into two acts: In the first, he strutted out in a casual silk-paisley shirt; the second, in a powder-blue Vice suit, both of which underscored the gravity of his afro. Each song was broken down and rebuilt to sprawl over 10 minutes and each band member was given a turn warping time with their weapon of choice. Tidbits of Withers’s private life were tendered — like that Withers’s favorite song, lyrically, is “Hello Like Before” — and a closing medley celebrated the lineage of which Withers’s influence weaving contemporaries and descendants into his oeuvre. It was magical. I heard a nasty rumour that in the moment James broke into the first chorus of “Lean On Me,” some of the more delicate Gauntlet writers in the audience welled up a bit.

You’d love José James and so would your grandmother. I mean, your grandmother probably fucking loves Bill Withers. And you should too.

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