words by Charles Hemmingson / photo courtesy of Veronica McLaughlin (13th Floor)
Soul is when you take a song and make it a part of you — a part that’s so true, so real, people think it must have happened to you. … It’s like electricity — we don’t really know what it is, do we? But it’s a force that can light a room. Soul is like electricity, like a spirit, a drive, a power.
Ray Charles, 1966
If anyone had the qualifications to set about defining the essence of soul in words it was the man who had a great deal to do with defining and refining the concept, the music, the movement itself.
At Auckland’s Civic Theatre on Saturday night another man, with the credentials and a musical history and career dating back almost as far as Ray Charles’ himself, demonstrated the power of soul in the very way that Charles describes, and no one who was there will likely forget it soon. When Bobby Womack, two-thirds into his ultimately 20-song set, went into A Change Is Gonna Come – a number which defines his own legendary mentor and friend Sam Cooke’s career, spirit and achievements probably more than any other song from Cooke’s towering repertoire – it certainly did sound as if Cooke’s powerful, personal, political and visionary story was Bobby Womack’s, too. And light the room he did.
As the defining moment of a show which brought the house down in a way one imagines only the real deal of a true gospel-fuelled rhythm ’n’ blues revue can do, it was the essence of soul – moving and electrifying. That moment also stood, of course, as a very personal tribute to, and as a symbol of, one of the true soul innovators in Cooke (a man who trail-blazed a path from the spiritual-based gospel circuit to the secular chitlin’ circuit to broad mainstream acceptance and love) – as well as a symbol, of course, of Womack himself – a man who followed directly in the footsteps of Sam Cooke (who mentored the Womack brothers’ first band The Valentinos from 1956 and signed them to his own label in 1960, once he had the clout and capacity to do so).
And what a voice did, and does, Bobby Womack possess. An original in all of the ways deemed important on that path such legends tread – legends of whom, Womack himself seems so aware, so few remain – in his performance of Cooke’s song, the well-documented triumph and tragedy of Womack’s life rang in a cracked yet joyous performance, which both crystallised and transcended the show.
Because, and for all of the histrionics, flash, polish and grit of the genuinely funky 13-piece rhythm ’n’ blues review band backing him – the horn solos, percussionist, and feature solo spots for the backing vocalists – was it not the voice of Bobby Womack we were there to hear, to witness, to celebrate above all else?
That voice, always as gravely as it was sweet (a quality even in his teens well-noted by Cooke) is now a beautiful weathered thing. Nonetheless, and even in its clear and road-worn imperfections, it’s a sound to behold, and on Saturday night it was the very essence of soul, its rich baritone, cracked yet unequalled falsetto, and deep, righteous vibrato cutting deep into the hearts of the front and back rows all.
As a singer grows older his conception grows a little deeper because he lives life and he understands what he’s trying to say a little more. If the singer tries to find out what’s happening in life it gives him a better insight [into] telling the story of the song he’s trying to sing.
Bobby Womack, Dayglo Reflection (Featuring Lana Del Rey), The Bravest Man in the Universe, 2012
Opening with Across 110th St, the title track of his classic seventies blaxploitation soundtrack, and arguably the epitome of the sub genre, it couldn’t have been a bolder move. It’s a tough song, both in terms of its range and phrasing, and proved a challenge for the singer straight off the bat. Arguably it’s the artist’s trump card in a wealth of potential set material – his much loved, best known song, and a number perhaps best reserved as a set’s knock out blow – though you could also understand the move. It’s his calling card, too, and in that a means of setting the scene when the lights go down and the audience shivers.
And with intent established he went on as he kicked off, his voice warming with every tune, the audience following willingly and willing him on. Three songs (Please Forgive My Heart, Deep River, and the title track) from his latest and great Damon Albarn-produced The Bravest Man in the Universe – a record which seems to touch a lot on notions of regret, forgiveness and redemption in its communication of a world-weary, but unbeaten and uncompromising taking of stock – sat naturally alongside some of his biggest hits, Lookin’ for a Love, That’s the Way I Feel about Cha, Woman’s Gotta Have It, Harry Hippie, and even slick, soapy eighties melodramas If You Think You’re Lonely Now, and I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much.
But it was the aforementioned Cooke classic and the true, abandoned gospel of Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me which had Auckland’s Civic feeling about as close to Harlem’s Apollo Theatre as it might ever feel, the singer entreating the audience, to stand up, to clap their hands, to testify – and rise and clap and dance and testify we did.
And some people say it’s just rock ’n’ roll. Oh, but it gets right down to your soul. You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing. Push the sky away.
Nick Cave, Push the Sky Away, Push the Sky Away, 2012
That Bobby Womack is treading the boards now, only months after family tragedy and his own struggle with grave illness, is further testament to his clear drive to sing, to connect, to testify himself. In a pimping red leather suit, shoes, cap, and shades, Womack – even with a tendency to tire at times, and despite clear physical limitations and the undeniable fragility of a man who’s plainly walked the walk – held centre stage and the spotlight as one imagines he always has.
I’m sure Nick Cave, a man who also knows not a little about the essence of soul, would understand Womack’s continued drive to write, to perform, to sing even still, and well beyond reasonable expectations of stamina and the official set list, even after the house lights have come up. And if the sky in Cave’s song represents the great beyond, or at least an emptiness or entropy or a stasis which presses or threatens us all, then perhaps there really is only one thing for it – there to be found in rock ‘n’ roll music, soul, gospel, rhythm ’n’ blues – there to be found in doing what you’ve always done, in never giving in nor up, in bringing it in on the one, two, three, four…
It certainly felt that way on Saturday night, as Womack’s valet repeatedly, and in the age-old R&B star-time tradition associated, in particular, with James Brown, re-jacketed him – Womack turning him away at one point, as Murray Cammick has pointed out, in the ultimate compliment to his audience.
Music is nothing separate from me. It is me. I can’t retire from music any more than I can retire from my liver. You’d have to remove the music from me surgically — like you were taking out my appendix.
Ray Charles, 1978 from Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story by Ray Charles and David Ritz
Music certainly remains with and in Bobby Womack, and no amount of illness, or real, potentially debilitating surgery has been able to remove this from him. Saturday night at the Civic was true testament to that.
Openers, Show Me Where It Hurts, proved an inspired (if initially left-field seeming) selection with their original and beguiling Rhodes electric piano, drums and vocals approach. The Auckland duo held it down and held their own in the face of what must well have felt an intimidating prospect, given the pedigree of the headliner – and for a solid, swinging 45 minutes engaged early comers, who were rewarded for their promptness with a hot and sometimes rollicking performance from singer, keyboardist Josh Hetherington and drummer Ronny Haynes. Both contrasting and complementing the main attraction, it was a performance in the true spirit of the occasion, and it ended up feeling just right.
Standout tunes All You’ll Ever Need, (an apparently theme-tuned) Show Me Where It Hurts, and stomping Motown-tinged finalé Joanee – alongside a wicked and funky, yet weirdly faithful rendition of seventies Rolling Stones’ incongruity Fool to Cry – warmed an audience who seemed as if they didn’t quite know what they were witnessing, but somehow really liked it – yes they did!