If a beacon for this emotionally potent music waits to be lit, Percy Sledge, one of the few remaining genuine southern soul singers still drawing breath, has the matches. Gingerly negotiating perilous steps to join his five-piece UK pick-up band on the Jazz Cafe stage, Sledge eases into a 15-song set, seamlessly blending three tunes off last year's warming Blue Night album, his first uniformly good record in over two decades, with a bunch of Sixties soul staples.
Short and portly, he is best when standing stock-still in the standard black tux, red kerchief waving from the breast pocket, left hand in trousers, microphone in right hand, and laying out those classical, measured soul ballads with their strong whiff of country - "Warm and Tender Love", "Cover Me", a gorgeous version of Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" - peaking on his excellent reading of "Out of Left Field" and an understated "At the Dark End of the Street". Both are Dan Penn co-written, which is probably no coincidence.
Of course, there is nobody quite as rootsy as Penn in the back-up band, which after only one day's rehearsal has not yet caught the mood of the singer, although guitarist and leader Jim Mullen cooks up a very passable hybrid of southern soul pickers such as Steve Cropper and Jimmy Johnson. The former would have appreciated Mullen's spare solo in the encore "Stand By Me", which amounts to a clear, simple recital of "Unchained Melody".
"All these friends gone," Sledge reminisces before a faithful interpretation of Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay", which was considerably better than his stab at Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour". His voice has lost a mite of power at the top of his range, which may have been jet-lag, but his intonation is surer than ever. Besides which, frantic emoting has never been his strong suit - his voice emanates balm.
Sledge essays a tribute, too, to the Temptations' lead voices, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, in "My Girl" - but it is Otis's reading that he performs note for note - and one for the drunks, an inglorious version of "Whiter Shade of Pale". Bearing in mind the gross indignities that the likes of Michael Bolton have showered on "When a Man Loves a Woman", Sledge's best-known achievement with which, of course, he closes, it is a serendipitous payback.
As keeper of the soul flame, Percy Sledge is diffidence personified, but give him a halfway decent ballad and he will argue the case for southern soul's defence like a singing Johnnie Cochran. At present, the music couldn't find a better custodian.
n 18, 19, 20 Jan, The Jazz Cafe, London NW1. Booking: 0171-916 6060. 21 Jan, The Palace, Luton. Booking: 01582 560222Reuse content