May 19, 2013 Music
Saturday May 18, 2013
He’s the last of the great soul men still standing, the connoisseur’s soul man, the gravel-voiced legend that never troubled the charts like Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye, but was there, in the shadows, writing some of the most intimate, personal, honest songs of a lost era. And by some miracle, he’s here tonight, resplendent in bright red leather pimp jacket, pants and cap on that expansive Civic stage, coaxing and cajoling the notes from that tortured throat like his life depended on it.
It’s an extraordinary thing to witness. Unlike so many “legacy” artists doing the rounds just one more time, this isn’t just about nostalgia. For the audience it may have been a pilgrimage, but for Womack it was a chance to reassert once again the warmth and dignity and history of a man and a music in a presentation perfectly suited to doing so: that of a seamless segued soul review.
Gigs are so often technologically assisted and enhanced that it’s become rare to see 12 musicians onstage, all singing, playing, dancing and sweating, a crack band doing its thing to make it a party and support the main ingredient. The mere fact that they were ready, willing and able made for a celebratory atmosphere, and only the seated venue prevented a mass sea of appreciative ass shaking.
It was poignant, and at times heartbreaking, too. Womack – who has weathered decades of serious drug addiction, diabetes, and more recently colon cancer and a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s – is clearly physically fragile, limping across the stage while exhorting the crowd to audience participation, and he appears to require a vigilant minder.
But recent claims that the singer had lost his vocal power proved false. Womack’s voice was always raspy, and by the 1980s that instrument was already a grizzled thing, albeit one that had gained in character and grain over the years. At 69, the man hits a few bum notes, but the voice has gained an emotional resonance that makes perfect sense when you think about it: after all, Womack, like all great soul voices, sounds like he’s living and dying at the same time, a breathing embodiment of his human condition.
The band rocked, but special mention must go to the double act of drummer Bubba Bryant and percussionist Tony Flores. The sound mix on the three female backing singers was a bit shrill, and I could have done with a little less shrieking from Lisa Coulter, but her guest shots did add some spunk to the stage show.
The song list over the one-and-a-half hour show is generous and expansive, encompassing a couple of tracks from last year’s comeback album, Bravest Man In The Universe, to raw soul grooves from the Sam Cooke era, and even a few slices of early gospel. In between are the songs that established his name with the white rock audience in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like “Across 110th St” and “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”. It’s songs like the latter, and “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” that show Womack as a master songwriter, and they’re slices of bedroom philosophy that make as much sense now as the day they were penned.