After a five year absence, George Benson returned triumphant to an adoring crowd at Ravinia Festival, just north of Chicago, IL. Ravinia, one of the best outdoor venues in the country, was the perfect setting for Benson's show. Band members, lighting effects, guitar, singing - all were at the level George's fans expect - excellence plus. And George's audience (packed pavilion, no grass to be seen on the lawn!) appreciated every minute of his show.
Reviewing a George Benson live performance is like reviewing a spectacular sunset - after you say "perfection" what's left? So suffice it to say that from his opening number "Nature Boy" to his closing encore "On Broadway" (given an updated funky sound since his last performance at Ravinia), George was in total control of an audience that, half-way through the show, was crowded up front at the stage as if they were at a rock concert. Being a jazz icon doesn't get in George's way as he sings, plays and jokes with the audience as if it was his first concert date ever and he was thrilled to be there.
Opening for Benson was Nneena Freelon, three time Grammy nominee for vocals. Unfortunately she never really connected with the audience and left this reviewer with the feeling that she was in the wrong venue. Her set was more appropriate for a lounge environment, although when she joined Benson during his set for a vocal scat "argument" she was effective.
George's band was as tight as always, with several regular members (music director and pianist Dave Garfield; Michael O'Neill, guitar and vocals; Stanley Banks, bass; Thom Hall, keyboards). New addition Estaire Godinez on percussion and vocals added a slightly Latin sound and welcome female presence on stage.
But George's acknowledgment of drummer Michael White, a Chicago native, showed the true measure of the man.
Secure and gracious in his own talent and stardom, Benson left the stage after his encore number "On Broadway" followed by a darkening of the stage and departure of the remaining band members...all except White who, with his drums up on risers and in bright white spotlights, performed a two minute drum solo for his local friends, family and fans. If that doesn't say it all about George Benson - genius, gentleman, guitarist extraordinaire - then nothing does.
Don't wait another five years before coming back to Ravinia, George - I think Chicago proved we can't do without you!!!!