Solomon Burke and Etta James
Hollywood Bowl, August 13, 2008
Solomon Burke is one of the last in a long line of vintage R ‘n B singers that came up with the likes of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Unlike those late legends, Burke never scored a Top 20 hit. Burke has parlayed his early success with a series of albums over the last few years that melded his rich baritone with an eclectic array of notable songwriters (including Dylan and many Brits like Costello, Lowe, Morrison, Clapton, et al). At the Hollywood Bowl on a lovely summer evening, the high point of Burke’s performance was an uplifting song written for him by Tom Waits. “Diamond In Your Mind” was introduced by Burke as a song that brought many folks hope in times of trouble, and surely stands as an outlier in Waits’ songbook. Burke also drew from his sterling new album Like A Fire (Shout! Factory), including the Clapton-penned title track.
Burke’s soulful stage band was full and robust, buttressed by a half dozen horn players. Burke makes his stagecraft look effortless, undoubtedly due to his decades of experience inspiring audiences and congregations. His concerts invariably take on an air of Sunday morning; Burke was leading church services as a teenager before starting his music career. “A Change Is Gonna Come” took the Hollywood Bowl to church on a warm summer evening. Burke paid homage to his roots with a medley of hits from the storied Atlantic label, and did so with a posse of lady dancers he invited up from the audience. Given his current girth, he performs seated from a regal throne. He does not exhibit much movement from his throne, but not much is needed. Burke works the stage with his deep smooth vocal prowess and preacher verve. (I still recall his set opening for Van Morrison a few years ago in NYC, when he joined curmudgeonly Morrison for an encore and achieved the near impossible: Burke got Morrison to crack a smile onstage). Although Burke has put his Sunday morning preaching on hiatus (temporarily, we pray), those lucky enough to see him at the Bowl got some fine religion indeed. He wound up his performance with a stirring and suitably uplifting rendition of “What A Wonderful World.”
Headliner Etta James was a bit less concerned about mixing the secular and the spiritual. To the dismay of many, she put her focus below the belt in a set better suited to the more intimate confines of a small blues club. The Roots Band was her support group and included two of her sons. They performed very well across a range of styles. James tipped past the slyness of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” into raunchy territory, but she almost redeemed herself with her signature “At Last.” Rod Stewart’s version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” brought the song to the attention of many baby boomers, but James’ version remains more soulful. Over the years James has charted more songs than any other female R & B artist other than Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, and James recently shed 200 pounds. Hers is a remarkable talent, but much of it seemed squandered in the splendor of the Hollywood Bowl.