Wednesday, July 12, 2006

After All These Years

There's something rather surreal about watching a 300-pound man in a shining, purple-sequined suit as he serenades 50 or so grown adults, all seated like school children with rapt attention before the man andhis massive throne. Yet no amount of disbelief, no amount of dream-state pinching managed to change the scene at Toronto's Massey Hall last Saturday night, for it was all really happening. This was, of course, a Solomon Burke concert.

The 66-year-old R&B veteran was making his first appearance in Toronto in 15 years, riding the wave of a career renaissance ongoing since the 2001 release of his modern masterpiece, Don't Give Up On Me. The long absence might have contributed to the audience's apparent reservation as the singer settled into the first few tunes of his set list, which included the rollicking "I Need Your Love in My Life" and "Diamond in Your Mind," which drew applause upon the mention that it had been written for Burke by Tom Waits. Technical flaws also threatened to mar the performance before it truly got underway. Burke's heavy backing band played with such vigour that the singer's mic—thus turned way up—was hotter than a baked potato and sent a flourish of high-decibel feedback careening off the hall's concrete ceiling. But what might have spelled disaster for a lesser performer seemed to inspire Burke. He settled his band by cooing to them "easy" in his velvety tenor and managed a witty, mid-song rhyming couplet to notify the soundboard of the technical glitches.

From then on Burke had the sizeable crowd eating from his meaty palm. The self-proclaimed king of rock-and-soul focused his energies on the latter genre for much of the night, running through his own classic tunes with musical skill and no small amount of showmanship—a considerable accomplishment considering he spent the entire performance sitting down. By the time Burke and his band began ripping into soul classics by Ben E. King, Otis Redding and Ike & Tina Turner, much of the (middle-aged, white) crowd was on its feet and many women had rushed toward the stage to receive a rose from the charming crooner. Many of these people would end up actually on stage before the end of the show, invited up by the congenial Burke to take pictures, shake hands and dance (or, in some cases, jerk arhythmically) while he continued singer behind them.

After a time, this particular aspect of the love-in became somewhat distracting, but the fact that such a thing occured at all mitigated any ill-will from the spectators who chose to remain in their seats. One gets the feeling that exciting brand of performer-audience interaction was prevalent in the time when singers like Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, et al were in the prime of their lives and careers. Few performers, it seems, can weave such an wonderful spell in this day and age. The evening's highlight came, ironically enough, with one of the set's few ballads, "Don't Give Up On Me." And as Burke's voice faded on the last evocative notes of what has become his signature song, one longed for a time that no longer exists, but was glad in the moment all the same.


Blogger Robotomatic said...

Interesting. I'm not sure I've ever seen passive agressive spite manifested through obstinate sitting.

7/12/2006 10:58 p.m.  
Blogger Punk is Dead said...

Well, to be fair, I didn't mean that the people not on stage remained seated; rather, that they stayed in the spot in the theatre for which they paid. Most, if not all, were standing by the end.

7/13/2006 12:42 p.m.  

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