ROCK / Live: Preaching to the converted: Tim Wright on George Benson at Wembley

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The Independent Culture
THE MUSICAL institution that is George Benson is a broad church, both in terms of the audience that comes to see him and the songs Benson chooses to play for them.

His concert, set 'in the round' at Wembley Arena, was witnessed by people of all colour, sex, creed and weight. The songs, too, came from far and wide, with numbers gleaned from Lennon & McCartney, Bobby Darin, Jeffrey Osborne and Nat King Cole, among others. The surprise was that Benson still managed to homogenise this diverse range of musical sources to create a bland but lovin' cupful of syrupy jazz-funk. One by one the songs melted anonymously into one another.

Benson's evangelical technique is undemonstrative, but effective. For ballads he takes a song - any song - improvises in a moody jazz style around the original chord structure and stretches the verse melody out of all recognisable shape across the top.

When it looks like the audience is drifting off, he hits them with a faster number (using exactly the same song sometimes), brings in a funky backbeat, ups the tempo and adds a few ukulele-like guitar licks. Benson then croons or scats, according to the mood.

Half the time he performed admirably as soul balladeer. During his rendition of 'Unforgettable', he even managed middling-to-good imitations of both Nat King Cole and daughter Natalie. But Benson looks more comfortable in jazz- funk guitar-star mode. Dance hits like 'Feel Like Makin' Love', '20/20' and 'Gimme the Night', were rattled off with precision and ease. The addition of a few instrumental numbers allowed him to scat along with his own guitar, his flexible voice covering up for some speedy, but not always accurate fretwork.

Benson favours a banjo style of guitar playing that sits comfortably on top of the wave of light percussion, flowing guitar lines and synthesisers supplied by a tight six-man band. Tonight, a full orchestra added a touch of strings. For the most part, however, they sat back while the smart young man with the synthesiser did their work for them.

Such bad handling of an expensive resource was surprising from a man whose career is clearly driven by a no-nonsense approach to musical arrangement. Despite constant references to his 'crazy' music, when he talked to the audience about his work Benson sounded like a senior partner in a mechanical engineering firm. Bands were referred to as 'operations', albums as 'projects'. He spoke of Lennon and McCartney 'putting together' 'Here, There and Everywhere' and then proceeded to strip down the song and convert it into a classic Benson construction, with all the usual architectural details: snappy, syncopated rhythms, vocal trills and diddly-dee guitar.

Expert playing and professional muzak arrangements transformed the rest of the set into passable George Benson fare, with the only sane bits of traditional soul singing occurring whenever big-voiced Patti Austen joined him on stage. The bad songs - like the ballad 'Stephanie' - were well upholstered; the good songs were stuffed.

(Photograph omitted)