An intimate live portrait of a unique performer.
Daryl Easlea 2011-08-23
Although more space has always been given to Marvin Gaye’s politicisation with What’s Going On in 1971, at the same time Curtis Mayfield was sincere in his belief that music should carry potent messages of change and advancement for African Americans. Curtis/Live! captures Mayfield at his very best. He was still only a year outside of his old group, The Impressions, and very much striking out on his own.
Recorded at New York’s Bitter End in January 1971 with a four-piece band, Curtis/Live! was originally spread over a double vinyl album. The tracks are warmly delivered, emotional and intimate, a close-up view of the politics and passion of the era. Mayfield’s self-titled debut solo album from the previous year is showcased, with a divine, pared down (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go and We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue (complete with an incredible conga breakdown by ‘Master’ Henry Gibson) being two of the show’s standouts.
Mayfield says on one of his lengthy introductions that anything can be perceived as underground, "as long as it is the truth" – and suddenly the Carpenters’ standard We’ve Only Just Begun becomes a rallying call for progress for Black America. It really is rather remarkable, especially as it segues into The Impressions’ standard, People Get Ready, with Mayfield wresting every inch of emotion out of its "I believe" ending.
Mayfield says that he has got "a little strength out there tonight" as random audience members cry "right on, right on" during a heartfelt version of We’re a Winner. Stretching back to some of the earliest Impressions material, Mayfield invests the songs with an introspection and sadness. Gipsy Woman, although arguably the only track that seems somewhat thrown away, is shorn of its glee; instead, it is thoughtful and sombre.
Curtis/Live! is more like a private performance than a full-blown in-concert album. There is nothing remotely showbiz about Mayfield’s frequent interactions with the crowd. The atmosphere throughout is one of hushed rapture. It is as if an esteemed travelling lecturer has come to town to impart his wisdom. As Mayfield allows everyone share his rapture of performance, it’s like overhearing an avuncular, personal conversation. That is why Curtis/Live! remains such a special album, and underlines why Curtis Mayfield was such a unique artist.