This is one of those things people tell you do to when you’re in Memphis: Go see the famous soul singer Al Green at the church he founded. On Sunday, Oct. 2, I was heading back home to Chicago after attending Gonerfest, a three-day punk and garage-rock party in Memphis. I decided to swing by the Rev. Al’s Full Gospel Tabernacle before leaving town. As several websites correctly indicated, services began at 11:30 a.m.
I’ve been told that you can’t be certain Green himself will appear at any given service and it isn’t easy to find out ahead of time. As the crowd filtered into the sanctuary, I noticed several musicians who’d played at Gonerfest — including the Australians in Chook Race and the New Zealanders in the hard-rock band Bloodbags — taking seats among the regular congregants. It looked like a third of the crowd was tourists.
The church’s choir performed, singing joyful gospel music that got the congregants (and some of us tourists) onto our feet and clapping our hands. Before too long, Green entered. “My name is the Rev. Al. All of you know me,” he said. “God has blessed us. You know how I know? Because you’re here.”
Throughout the 2-hour-and-15-minute service, Green preached and sang — often breaking out into snippets of hymns while he was in the midst of speaking. And wow, what a voice — Green is just an amazing singer as ever. There were a few moments when I could barely believe what I was hearing.
Green and the others at the Full Gospel Tabernacle are obviously accustomed to attracting curious people outside of the regular congregation, and they were very welcoming. At one point, Green asked people were they were from. A large contingent of Australians was present, along with people from England, France, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and various parts of the U.S. (“England?” Green exclaimed. “Let’s get a shout for England. Yee-hah!”)
I wasn’t certain if taking photos or video was allowed, but several people were doing it — and no one seemed to be frowning and dissuading them — so I pulled out my iPhone to snap some pictures and record video. (See my video at the top of this post.) I was holding up the phone when Green came down the aisle toward me. Seeing me, he remarked: “Hi there. You’re busy taking my picture. Hurry up — I look good!”
At another point, when a baby in the church cried, Green said, “That’s right, little baby. Say, ‘Amen!'” He also showed his sense of humor when he drank wine during the sacraments, noting: “Mmmm. Must be some of that Mogen David. Someone been to the store.”
Green started to comment about the presidential election, but then he said he wouldn’t bring politics into his pulpit. He told those present to keep God at the center of their decision about which candidate to vote for. “Because God is L-O-V-E,” he said. A minute later, he remarked, “I just love people, and I love people that love people.”
Green’s fame is obviously the reason so many strangers flock to his church, but he struck a modest tone, saying: “We can talk to each other like this because we’re little shots. I’m not a big shot. I’m a little shot.”
My roundup of Gonerfest and my visit to Memphis
Gonerfest 2016 and Memphis photo galleries:
Day 1 — opening ceremonies at Cooper Young Gazebo (Nots) and nighttime show at Hi Tone (emcee Jim Dandy, Hash Redactor, Chook Race, Counter Intuits, Useless Eaters, Fred & Toody, Reigning Sound)
Day 2 daytime party at Memphis Made Brewing (LSDOGS, Kool 100s, Trampoline Team, Pity)
Day 2 nighttime show at Hi Tone (Opposite Sex, Aquarian Blood, Power, Buck Biloxi, Blind Shake, Black Lips)
Day 3 daytime party at Murphy’s (Casual Burn, Bloodbags, Fire Retarded, Archie & The Bunkers, Iron Head, Zerodent, Oh Boland, Bloody Show, The World, Spray Paint)
Day 3 nighttime show at Hi Tone (emcee Tom Scharpling, Couteau Latex, Sick Thoughts, Bloodshot Bill, Control Freaks, Midnight Snaxxx, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds)
Touring Ardent Studios with Jody Stephens