Solomon Burke, Jazz Café, London
Thursday 29 July 2010
Quite how Solomon Burke's 12-piece band fits onto the Jazz Café's tiny stage is a miracle, rather like one of those 3D wooden jigsaw puzzles, with the guitarist way out right beside a post, the drummer lurking behind the three-man horn section, and the bassist hidden behind the backing singers. Things aren't made any easier by the massive gilt and red velvet throne centre stage, from which the King of Rock and Soul proclaims his gospel of love.
But what's even more miraculous is the way that, despite the presence of competing attractions, including two lissom young backing vocalists in black sequinned minidresses and another two violinists in identical garb, Solomon Burke captivates his audience's attention throughout the two-hour show without leaving his throne. Such is his magnetic personality, and his command of gestural nuance – the admonishing finger, the heavenwards gaze, the digits momentarily fluttering on his chest to suggest heartbeats – that one's reluctant to look elsewhere for fear of missing another touch of subtle theatre. Occasionally, he dips into the bunch of red roses positioned by the throne, and a long-stemmed bloom is proferred to this or that lady in the audience (and guys, note: they are never received ungratefully).
Then there's that voice, of course: the ease with which he can imperceptibly swoop from conversational Sprechstimme to passionate expression within a single phrase is astonishing, the product of more than five decades spent honing his stagecraft. At one point, during the deep soul number "Don't Give Up On Me", the instruments drop away completely to leave Burke reciting the lyrics alone, the place pin-drop silent as he whispers his testimony.
Burke is a masterful singer, never stooping to the histrionic screams employed by more flamboyant soul belters, and rarely feeling the need to test the upper reaches of his range too much. It may be that, in his 70s, it's too great a strain: after hitting the high notes at the conclusion of the song Tom Waits wrote for him, "Diamond In Your Mind", he pats himself on the head, and it doesn't seem corny at all. But it's also that he doesn't need to strain: rather than wrestle a song into submission, Burke inhabits its innermost emotional corners, unlocking its secrets, so even though it may be associated with another singer, such as "Dock Of The Bay" or "I Can't Stop Loving You", he always finds his own truth within it.
It's the golden soul oldies that people want to hear, most blended into two medley sections, the second gear-shifting smoothly between "Dock Of The Bay", "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)", "Stand By Me" and "Mustang Sally", before the evening climaxes with a rousing romp through Burke's anthem, "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love".
It's an appropriate theme for this most charismatic of entertainers. During the show, he invited on stage a couple whom, as an ordained minister, he had married backstage before the performance, and gave them a further blessing. "I'm the father of 21 children, 90 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren," he announced proudly, "so loving is what I do." Ain't that the truth!
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