Solomon Burke, Royal Albert Hall, Lonond
Pudding comes after the cheese
Sunday 20 April 2003
Solomon Burke's role in pop culture cannot be overestimated. This is the man, after all, for whom the term soul music was invented (in the early 1960s, when rhythm and blues was thought of as "the devil's music", Burke, a preacher, needed a small semantic adjustment before his church would allow him to release "secular" records). On top of that, Burke provided the Rolling Stones with two of their earliest songs – adding more rhythm and blues, sorry, more soul, to their roots-blues sound and changing the direction of music in the process. As if that wasn't enough to earn Burke respect, let's not forget that he is also the man who crooned "Cry to Me" in the background as Jennifer Grey lost her virginity in Dirty Dancing. Pivotal moments all. Now that's what I call all-encompassing influence.
But tonight, the 62-year-old, 300lb spiritual leader of the House of God for All People (over 150 missions across America and growing) is the support act to Van Morrison. It's a strange decision all round. Morrison – with his small, tight, backing group and lack of a truly great record in over 20 years – is headlining over the King of Soul, whose Grammy-winning, Hall of Fame inducting album Don't Give Up on Me (with songs written for him by among others Brian Wilson, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan) is many critics' favourite of last year.
And when was the last time you saw a support act with a 16-piece backing band? Who spent the entire show sitting in a throne with an attendant – let's call him Smithers, after Mr Burns's gimp in The Simpsons – mopping his brow? Even without his bulk – he is wearing not so much a tent as a big top, in all senses – Burke casts an enormous shadow over the headlining act and rumour has it that the billing may be changed for later dates in the tour.
He opens with "Cry to Me" and runs (or rather sits) his way through some old favourites and a medley of Otis Redding songs with only a sprinkling of songs from "Don't Give Up on Me". But there are few old showmen left and the material is largely irrelevant here. Burke spends much of the night handing roses to ladies who form an orderly line at the front of the stage. In an hilarious piece of theatre, a man joins the queue and waits and waits for a posy to be passed. But Burke – who bears more than a passing resemblance to South Park's Chef – is an old showman. The King of Soul. And the King of Soul does not pass roses to men. Eventually, the man is invited by Smithers to join (forgive my mixed animataphors) Chef on stage.
At the end of the song our roseless hero is forced to explain that he wanted the flower for his wife, Judy – it's the couple's anniversary and the tickets for the gig were a gift from their daughter. Let's just say that if you were allergic to cheese, at this point you would have gone into anaphylactic shock. But then, when you can close your set with "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" – another Burke tune known to millions through the movies, in this instance The Blues Brothers – what difference does a little cheese on top make? But you do have to feel sorry for Van. He is either an exceptionally brave artist, or an exceptionally foolish one. Now I love Astral Weeks, Moondance, Veedon Fleece, St Dominic's Preview and It's Too Late to Stop Now as much as anyone, but you really can not and should not attempt to follow the King of Soul.
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