Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Bill Withers: Live at Carnegie Hall [Columbia/Legacy, 1997]
Beyond "Use Me," "Lean on Me," and "Ain't No Sunshine," does anyone remember this guy existed? What a shame. Far more than best-ofs obliged to respect the career he maintained after this hypercharged 1972 night, his legacy is right here, a moment of lost possibility. Withers sang for a black nouveau middle class that didn't yet understand how precarious its status was. Warm, raunchy, secular, common, he never strove for Ashford & Simpson-style sophistication, which hardly rendered him immune to the temptations of sudden wealth--cross-class attraction is what gives "Use Me" its kick. He didn't accept that there had to be winners and losers, that fellowship was a luxury the newly successful couldn't afford. Soon sudden wealth took its toll on him while economic clampdown took its toll on his social context. But here he's turned on to be singing to his people--black folks who can afford Carnegie Hall. A