March 9, 2007

Solomon Burke Reigns Supreme

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I was first introduced to soul music as a kid, riding in the car with my parents, wondering just who the hell would name their son Fats Domino or Wilson Pickett. Despite that initial reluctance, I have come to see the brilliance of the men and women who generated the soul sound. Solomon Burke is one of the few members of this illustrious group still performing.
Burke’s name has never been ubiquitous in the music industry. The “King of Rock n’ Soul” never attained the prestige of his relatives James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Regardless, he was certainly one of the pioneers of American Soul and shows few signs of slowing down. This past Saturday, Burke brought the Kingdom of Soul to the State Theatre in Ithaca.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Burke’s performance. When seeing an old legend, I often feel some anxiety, a fear that the legacy of the performer has not remained intact. I pushed aside my unease and gathered up some optimism during the few minutes before the start of the show. At last, I noticed the house lights go down and heard someone be wheeled onto the stage. When the lights returned, I was facing a jovial man resplendent in a sparkly black suit.

Solomon Burke is no stranger to fanfare and pomp, or thrones for that matter. The manner with which the “King” was revealed, smiling down upon his subjects, had a rehearsed quality. After a brief homage to “the Godfather of Soul,” the shaking off of a gold cape, Burke opened his arms and said, “Are we ready to get things started?” The audience acquiesced and without any ado at all, the six-piece band launched into an excellent 12-bar blues.

Burke sang his best known hit, “Cry to Me,” early on in the show along with his more country-inspired hits including “Down in the Valley” and “Always Keep a Diamond in Your Mind.” I was impressed by the purity of the songs. His style has remained remarkably untainted despite years spent fiddling with country melodies, rock ’n roll and the blues. His voice is as astonishing as it was when he recorded with a very green Atlantic Records in 1968.

Like Aretha Franklin, Burke started out as a gospel singer. On Saturday, Burke was, in fact, performing with the Ithaca Baptist church choir. Burke closed his eyes and prayed as he sang with the choir. The hymn reflected the faithful aspect of Burke’s music. He had a clear devotion to his music and to the stories and emotional expressions that comprise his songs. His belief in his art, the rendering of simple human stories about love, loss, family and faith, lent his style an unabashed fearlessness that is compelling.

There is, on the other hand, a bit of the hysterical in Burke. He is a loud man, large, noisy and buoyant. His daughter sang back-up vocals and often adjusted his cape and patted his face dry in a dramatic fashion. Burke handed out roses to the ladies in the audience (mine is still on my desk). The climax of the general hilarity came when Burke asked people to dance onstage. A rather severe looking man in glasses, khakis and a blue blazer temporarily stole the show, brandishing the microphone. Toward the end, Burke invited the audience to request songs, saying, “This isn’t like most concerts you go to is it?” No, it certainly wasn’t. Burke’s performance was crazy, bizarre and entirely enjoyable.

Following the audience participation portion of the evening, Burke sang Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Almost Lost My Mind,” and although his voice was admittedly hoarse, his mastery of the soul sound was evident. Burke’s technique is messy, sometimes strained, gravely and very human. It was a pleasure to hear a true vocalist. Many nameless soul singers have come and gone; it is the rich imperfection of Burke’s voice that makes him unique. When he invited the audience to sing along, even the tone-deaf man sitting to my right could not diminish the glory of Burke belting out the line, “… This time, she’s gone for good.”

Burke demonstrates that elusive amalgamation of the faithful gospel sound, the blues, and honest expression that constitutes soul. Rounding out the show with his Grammy-winning song, “Don’t Give Up on Me,” Burke thanked the audience for letting him do what he loves. In the tradition of royalty, he simultaneously gave thanks to his fans and reminded them that he is, as ever, the one true “King of Soul.”

It is rare to find a performer who lays all of his cards out on the table. Burke took a break to tell the audience about his band. He motioned to the lead guitarist, laughed and joked: “Sam and I have been together for a long time, took my guitar once and left town!” He readily informed us that he recently had to let go of his 15-piece band to appease his accountant. He may be the man who sang “It Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” but there is an honesty to Solomon Burke that shines through the rehearsed theatrics and red velvet. He knows that this is not 1968 anymore, he laughs at the madness of his antics along with the audience, shrugs his shoulders and just keeps singing.