ROCK / You people deserve to hear this right: Al Green returned to the London stage this week, raring to stop and start. Jim White watched him at the Royal Festival Hall

THE audience was so cool it looked as though it had had a head-on incident with a truck-load of liquid nitrogen: Paul Weller and Roland Gift merely two of many there to pay homage. Al Green, king of soul, champion of gospel, had condescended to bring his show to England for the first time since flares were last in fashion. Certainly the master of ceremonies was in no doubt: 'Welcome to a genius, the fabulous Mr Al Green,' he said. At which the spotlight picked out an embarrassed young man, carrying a briefcase, dashing head-down across the stage. This, it turned out, was not Al Green, nor were the three plump backing singers, nor the trio of Memphis Horns who followed, set up behind their microphones and began to pump out the unmistakable sound of spine-tickling funk.

When Green finally appeared, his mirrored lapels dazzling, the audience was on its feet enraptured. He flapped a white hankie in their direction, begging them to stop cheering ('No, please, you're too kind') like a soulful Clive Anderson. He then essayed a few tricksy dance steps, handed out half a dozen red roses, complained about his PA ('Oh, fix this mike - these people deserve to hear this right'), applauded his audience and told us how at home he felt in Great Britain. And that was just his first number.

Green is not one to stick to an agenda. Not for him slickly rehearsed sequences or scripted asides. Barely into his second song he was off on the first of an evening-full of tangents. His trio of backing singers was singing about the holy name of Jesus, while Al was apparently reading the back of his tour T-shirt. 'Yeah we been to Oslo, Norway,' he sang in his unmistakable gravel. 'Then we flew down into Copenhagen, Denmark.' During his third number, 'Amazing Grace', he announced that he had needed an injection before the show because his larynx was shot and would his audience be kind enough to sing for him. Amazingly they did.

Behind Al, the band was sensational, and it needed to be. He exuded an air of barely suppressed shambles, stopping, starting, giving up, switching songs mid-phrase. Somehow they were with him wherever he went, ready to stop a rousing standard midstream if he felt like it, or pick up something completely different if that was what he decided. When he took off on a series of sorties into the audience, his organ player kept her eye on him wherever he went, ready for any indication as to what she should play next.

Or maybe she was concerned for his safety. Green's little jaunts through the stalls provoked a teenage response from a considerably older crowd - 'That was not a church holler,' he chastised one squealing fan. And he had yet to sing a full number. He has had problems with fans in the past. One, at the height of his fame, showed her appreciation by chucking a pan of boiling fat down his back while he was taking a shower. Green never fully recovered, and, stooped and breathless, he was clearly battling pain for much of this performance.

His voice, however, seemed in tip- top form. When we heard it. He had a habit of stopping his band in full flow, insisting they take the sound right down, while he put the microphone on the stage and addressed it on his hands and knees from five paces back. Though he was capable of hitting such notes in this position, even his backing singers applauded; after the 10th time of asking this had become an irritation.

But it was as nothing compared to the manner in which he resolutely refused to complete, and sometimes even start, a song. Two bars into 'Let's Stay Together', for instance, he gave up, handing the singing duties over to his audience while he strode the stalls beaming. So instead of the finest voice in soul, you were obliged to listen to the flattest voice in Neasden, two rows behind, gurgling in your ear. It was like watching Ryan Giggs beat three men with a dazzling body swerve, then, just as the goal beckoned, give up and start waving to his mum in the crowd.

Green did, however, know how to wind things up. 'Um-hmm, I could go on all night,' he had said several times. But, like a mendacious lover, he was finished much sooner than anyone expected. 'I could go on, but you people have better things to do,' he explained, as he accepted bouquets, kissed hands and staggered into the arms of the man with the briefcase (which, it transpired, contained a couple of towels) after little more than an hour. The crowd went home beaming with delight. Such is the power of legend.

(Photograph omitted)

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