Arts: This charming man

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The Independent Culture
HALF THE charm of the night's key number is that it's a request you don't necessarily expect a chap like Jose Feliciano to make.

It's one thing for Jim Morrison to gyrate and fiddle with his zip and arrogantly demand that a woman light his fire; quite another when the words are murmured as a loving invitation. Light My Fire works as well, if not better, when it comes from Feliciano, which is probably why it got to number one in 1968, just months after the Doors reached that spot with their organ-heavy original. Tonight, Feliciano delivers it with intense concentration, caressing his guitar as if it were his wife and leading men helplessly to caress their girlfriends.

He has, of course, more strings than this to his acoustic. Born blind in 1945, one of 11 brothers, Feliciano moved with his family from Puerto Rico to Harlem at the age of five; his first musical experience was accompanying his uncle's singing by drumming on a biscuit tin. He learned the accordion, then, aged eight, picked up a guitar and taught himself to play by practising for up to 14 hours a day. "Being blind, I had to concentrate on one thing," he has said. "And once I found that thing, I had to be better than good at it."

The final impetus, if needed, was when his father lost his job, and Feliciano took his seductive Latin-American rhythm and blues to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Since then, he's sold more than 90 million records, won handfuls of Grammys and played alongside Joni Mitchell, the Grateful Dead and Chuck Berry.

Though he's never stopped touring, and works to a killer schedule, he's back in vogue because his bluesy tenor and intimate flamenco-style guitar have touched a nerve with jazz-funk clubbers. But that means little to Feliciano, whose live show can veer from the tender beauty of the songs he sings in Spanish to certain ill-advised MOR covers. Some of his choices stray perilously close to easy listening but, at 53, Feliciano isn't here to reinvent himself for the club generation, and it would probably be a bad idea if he tried.

A slight man, who has to be led carefully down the venue's steep steps to the stage, he launches into a steamy "Feel Like Making Love", a sparkling "Dance With Me", and a psychedelic "Sunshine of Your Love". The aces he holds are his eloquent guitar playing and a voice that's both coaxing and vulnerable. It's wooing, yet achingly uncertain, and this, I think, is just where we came in.


Jose Feliciano plays the Jazz Cafe all this week.