REVIEW / Some enchanted evening: Live and gigging: Ray Charles - Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
RAY CHARLES was late arriving, delayed by showbusiness. After the lights had gone down, his orchestra teased us with a lengthy Big Band number. Time wore on. A trumpeter made his way to the front and blew a solo for a few bars: as did, in turn, a saxophonist, another trumpeter and then another saxophonist. For a while it seemed everyone in the band was pencilled in for their own personal slot, and if one of the Festival Hall's usherettes had come down and soloed on congas, you would not have been surprised. Odd thoughts entered your mind. Was Ray Charles in the building? Was he even up yet?

But then the knot of large men off- stage at one side thickened slightly and became more urgently active and a voice boomed, 'Now, the legendary genius of soul, Ray Charles.' And at long last, there he was, cropped white hair and shades perched above a grey tuxedo with black lapels, a pink handkerchief showing above the top pocket, being led up the steps and across to the keyboard, hand slapping his thigh in time with the band's racy fanfare, as if he could hardly wait to sit down and become a part of it. During his first song, you feared the voice had weakened away to nothing: but then the sound man got his act together, and as the band poured into an achingly slow version of 'Georgia On My Mind', you could hear him properly, still loud and still strong.

If you believe Ray Charles was born in September 1930 (and there are a number of other stories), that makes him 61. He's at that stage in his career where you do two shows in a night (one at 6.30 and then a second at 9.00), not out of a desire to double your work-load but rather as a means of paring it down. So you could easily foresee him spending half an hour in a sedate tour of the old favourites, winding down with a risk-free version of 'I Can't Stop Loving You' and going home. In fact, he played for an hour and a quarter, mixed the big standards with one or two less well- trodden ballads, tore into everything as if it really mattered, and only then wound down with a risk-free version of 'I Can't Stop Loving You'.

After 'Georgia', he played, of all things, 'Some Enchanted Evening', which started out as a piece of spoof cabaret with Charles chasing frivolously up and down the keyboard and growling at the lyrics. But then it burst into that beat which used to be called 'disco', and ended with Charles bawling out some vocal ad libs, twisting his feet off the ground in his excitement.

There are few styles Charles hasn't dallied with at some point across the years, but a brash version of 'What'd I Say' reminded how his most vital singing gets done right at the point where rhythm and blues hits gospel and becomes soul. It must be said, a small portion of the show bore more immediate traces of the Seventies, right at the point where soul dropped belly-first into a pool of sentimental mush. These days, he favours an electric keyboard over an acoustic piano and just occasionally pushes the button which makes it sound like a music- box at Christmas. But even then, above the sugary chords, his voice would arch out and catch at some unexpected phrase, at one particularly glorious moment, making a slow ascent through two octaves to become a sustained squeal.

To firm things up near the end, the Raelets shimmied on and led a vigorous assault on 'Knock on Wood'. Charles's reputation would be secure even if he devoted the rest of his career to Gregorian chant, but for now it is cheering to note that he is probably the last man alive who can tease his backing vocalists by shouting 'Sock it to me, baby' and get away with it.

(Photograph omitted)