When legendary soul man Bobby Womack is deep into a song, he grasps his mic stand very very tightly to keep from falling, and he buries his head deep into his chest, he lets his jaw go slack, and his mouth widen and he growls in tune with a reverberating tenor that is all gradations of tenderness. Now he does wobble, his voice an instrument of inexactitude running up and down the scales with that husky rawness, before taking a long breath and hitting the verse again. There are eleven musicians and Womack on stage and all you can hear is Bobby Womack.
Bobby began his career in the mid-1950s, recording for Sam Cooke’s Gospel imprint SAR Records with his brother as the Valentinos and playing guitar inCooke’s back up band, before going solo. The Rolling Stones covered Bobby’s “It’s All Over Now” and had a huge hit, and despite a controversial derailment after Womack married Sam Cooke’s widow, has maintained his career through the death of two of his children, drug addiction, diabetes, cancer, and right now, alzheimer’s disease.
At City Winery last night, he performs the Sam Cooke produced, Bobby written, The Valentinos first hit single “Looking For A Love”. The years have taken their toll on Womack, but he rips the lungs out of the song, forcing the audience on to their feet with a “If I can stand up, you can stand up”, wailing “can I hear you say yeah”, scatting along with one of his back up singers Alltrinna Grayson, before they begin to duel it out with only us the winners. This is the real deal, soul brothers, this isn’t Womack on stage with the Gorillaz saving Damon’s skin at MSG the way he was the last time I saw him, and it ain’t the very disappointing 2012 The Bravest Man In The Universe, this is the essence of the man’s 50 plus years in the business. This is the consistency of sound and timbre, of learning and performing, of bringing the essence of a sound that is losing it as the great musicians of the 50s and 60s die out.
Opening with “Across 110th Street” and continuing with “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out”, Womack is energetic and happy to be their, when he puts on his leather suit he is there to work and over 90 minutes, quarter of an hour longer than advertised because he wanted to go elsewhere and elsewhere he goes, throwing in a late “Love Has Finally Come At Last” which is beyond simple admonishments like professional, or hard boiled, or tough soul, and right into a world of poetic off 1984’s The Poet II, where he once performed in with Patti Labelle.
Surely this is the hardest working man in showbiz, on stage at least, because while he doesn’t perform that much live, when he does, he gives it everything he’s got. The difference between Womack on and off the stage is startling. Even with the help of handlers , Womack can barely walk on and off stage, he looks older than his 69 years of age, but once he hits the stage he sounds like he is 40 years old. People keep telling me how he has lost the voice, but they must have seen a very different show than I did: Womack ranges from a whisper to a scream, he can and does sing everything with a tender power, a whooping beauty that swoops down and carries the audience. Womack connects with the audience with ease and with authority and when he sings it matters what he sings and how he sings it; Womack the song writer behind “If You Think You’re Lonesome Now” with its deadly punchline “just wait until tonight” is at complete service to Womack the singer trading off the lines and igniting the room with intense sexuality pulling away to an angry denouement/
I’m not claiming perfection for the set, though the woman sitting next to me claims it was the best concert she’s ever seen, the “Bravest Man”, where she introduces the world to the band, needs to be shortened, and neither “Deep River” nor “Jesus Be A Fence Around Me” is quite on the money( he sounds tired on “Deep River”) and “It’s All Over Now” is perfunctory at best. But it is more than made up for by the highlights, Bobby dueting with his daughter Ginarae (who performed a fine opening three song set herself) on “A Change Is Gonna Come, any time Alltrinna duets with Bobby but especially on “Love Has Finally Come At Last” followed by “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Looking Up to You” -two tandem showstoppers.
The amazing thing here is how involved the big man is in the music, how alive Womack is to the sounds, how at 69 years old he might still be l a badass but he is a joyful, surviving badass; it’s like the world has grown only as big as the stage he controls and this world is timeless soul greatness.
Womack is like an Oliver Sacks character, who can’t remember anything about who he is but when he plays piano cans till remember how to play every note. For all that has happened to Womack; raised in poverty so bad that the projects looked good (he explained to the Guardian: “No rats and free”), he was signed to SAR Records by the time he was sixteen years old and now, all these years later, when he gets on stage, he brings his experience, yes, but he becomes young again, he can barely walk off stage but he can move on stage and he phones nothing in, he performs these songs, many of which he wrote, with sweet power conviction. In a word: soul.
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