An empty, plus-size golden throne sits at the centre of the Barbican stage, surrounded by red roses and a black-clad band, including leggy violinists, a sprightly blind organist and a three-piece brass section. As they play "Amazing Grace", the lights dim and King Solomon Burke – as he likes to be known – is carried on-stage. Burke has never been a lightweight, but in recent years his obesity has confined him to a wheelchair. I assumed this might limit his performance. As the lights go up, I realise how wrong I was. There he is – all 30 stone of him – trussed up in a silver suit like a Christmas turkey, hollering like the preacher that he is, singing "Like a Fire" to the heavens.
Sixty-eight years old and one of the few surviving Sixties soul legends, Burke is in high spirits. The Clapton song is just one prime cut from his latest album, Like a Fire – his 34th record in 46 years. Indeed, despite his health problems, Burke hasn't sat still for half-a-decade. There has been no wilderness period for the singing preacher from Philadelphia, and there clearly isn't going to be.
There he sits, regal as the Queen, throwing flowers into the audience and happily taking requests. "Soul Searching" is a beautifully sculpted wall of sound; "Cry to Me", his best-loved song, is accompanied by sassy hand claps from the two female backing singers – who turn out to be one of Burke's 89 grandchildren and one of his 21 children.
As Burke sings the opening line of the Tom Waits-penned "Diamond in Your Mind", he tosses his necklace into the front row. For a man who can't walk, he sure can shimmy in his seat.
Highlights of the set include "How I Got to Memphis" and a slow-burning, soulful "Don't Give Up On Me", which showpieces his heart-rending voice. After paying his respects to the late soul stars James Brown, BB King, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding et al, Burke sings Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" as if it were the happiest song on earth, followed by a medley of "Stand By Me", "Wait Till the Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally". By the end, half the crowd are on stage as the legend is carried away, dancing in his wheelchair, waving triumphantly through the darkness.Reuse content