By , on April 15, 2009

Archives, Gigs

Solomon Burke at Jazz Festival Wien (Austria) in 2008

Solomon Burke at Jazz Festival Wien (Austria) in 2008

In this performance at B.B. King’s in Times Square, Solomon Burke proved beyond doubt that — at 64, after more than 50 years on stage — he is still one of the great American singers. Even if he held  his stentorian vocal power in reserve, those moments when he chose to unleash it (cf. the final phrases of Ton Waits’ “Always Keep a Diamond in Your Mind”) were awe-inspiring. I was saddened to see Solomon brought on stage in a wheelchair; he must weigh close to 400 pounds (and he’s not tall). But I marveled at how, from a seated position, he was able to hold the crowd’s full attention and to maintain total control over the proceedings.

Unfortunately, Solomon’s still-formidable chops and wily showman’s skills were not always enough to overcome the shortcomings of his band. I realized how accustomed I’d become to seeing him backed by the Uptown Horns—and the band he had at B.B. King’s made the Uptown Horns sound like King Curtis & the Kingpins circa 1967. The playing was “tight” and “professional” but also slick, superficial and not very soulful with the possible exception of “Rudy” on Hammond B-3. The presence of a woman playing the harp (not the Little Walter kind) was as irritating as it was inexplicable.

Another source of frustration was the choice of material. For me, Solomon was at his best whenever he sang an actual Solomon Burke record, be it “Diamond in Your Mind” or “Soul Searchin'” from 2002 or “Down in the Valley” from 1962 I even enjoyed the over-familiar ballad medley (“If You Need Me”/”Tonight’s The Night”/”He’ll Have to Go”/etc.) that has been a staple of his show for at least a quarter-century; after all, these were some of the biggest and best-loved songs of his Sixties career. The “Soul Clan Medley” was nice too, a fitting tribute even though it omitted anything by SC charter member Joe Tex.

But a good part of the set was devoted to the best-known songs of other soul singers: “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Havin’ a Party” by Sam Cooke or “I Got a Woman” and “Georgia” by Ray Charles. At these moments, the show became something of a K-Tel genre exercise: Solomon Burke Sings Soul Songs Every White Person Knows By Heart. But Solomon Burke fans can pull from our own record collections twenty great Solomon Burke songs (several written or co-written by him) that we may never hear Solomon Burke sing on stage: “It’s Been a Change,” “Detroit City,” “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free),” etc. And in Solomon’s hands, with his voice and presence, I’m certain those songs would have proved just as captivating to the B.B. King’s audience as his very broad and rather hollow rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come.” (As for his daughter Candy’s rendition of “I Will Survive”—the less said, the better.)

Despite these criticisms, it was just great to “see Solomon be Solomon” and still in such vital command of his unique singing and performing abilities. Just for “Don’t Give Up On Me” and that brief closing benediction, it was worth the trip to Times Square and the Port Authority Music Terminal B.B. King’s.

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