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Solomon Burke/Van Morrison, Royal Albert Hall, April 2003

It was great to see Solomon Burke "live". He was never a big seller over here, but many of his songs were familiar to us in the 60ís from covers by The Rolling Stones, Pretty Things, Undertakers and even Tom Jones; then later the Blues Brothers. Tonight it was almost like a church as we filed in and our eyes were drawn to the huge red throne, centre stage. His 13-piece band started without him. We couldnít hear the brass section or the harp too well. They all looked smart and colourful. Thereís a trumpeter in white top hat and tails suit. We wonder if we could persuade the elegantly booted harpist to give us a lunchtime recital. The organist, Rudy Copeland, was a real character who kept pointing upwards and standing up.

As befits the "King of Rock and Soul", Solomon came on with a long red cloak and mace-like stick. In an almost non-stop set, Solomon sang a good selection of his old numbers. "If you need me", "Just out of reach", "Everybody needs somebody to love" and the up-tempo "Down in the valley". There were a couple from the current CD Ė Tom Waitsí "Diamond in your mind", which is one of my favourites, and Brian Wilsonís "Soul searching".

He sang from his stage centre throne, moving his huge bulk around expressively (or just to get comfy). The church service feel was reinforced throughout his set by the steady procession of women to the front of the stage, to receive long-stemmed roses from him. He tried to thank us for supporting America in the war in Iraq which might, he said, in time be seen to be about human rights rather than oil wells. But people booed him and shouted for him to get on with the music. "Easy" he said and stood up for the only time in the set to sing the title track from his current CD "Donít give up on me". He closed with a medley of Otis Redding/Ben E. King numbers which seemed a bit unnecessary, but I guess he knows the awareness levels of his audience. And that was it. 40 minutes, no encore, over too soon.

The hall was not full while Solomon was on, but now it filled to near capacity for Van Morrison. They were still squeezing past to seats when the lights went down. Who are these people? They donít know what they missed.

Van Morrisonís 5-piece band played close together at the front of the stage and gelled well. They were surprisingly quieter than their support act. They played a good bluesy opening, but it could have been and pub band, quite honestly. This was a different type of church service. Stripped down, fundamentalist. The band is dressed drabbly. Morrison walks on to join in, wearing an E.L. Wisty hat and a jacket that looked like a cut down version of his mací. The congregation duly gave uncritical adulation but, after a few more songs, it all seemed pretty samey. Cheesy, unexceptional songs with jazzy solos, played competently enough Ė it could have been Jazz FM. "Moondance" plus an almost identical arrangement for "Have I told you lately that I love you?" produced near ecstasy in the audience Ė why? No announcements, of course. As the set progressed, I did warm a bit to the way he used his voice as an instrument, although it was difficult to make out lyrics. He also played some harmonica and quite a lot of alto sax (once all round the back of the stage), although not as well as the saxist/flautist in his band. He moved to guitar for a traditional sounding song, while his guitarist played fiddle for a while. I enjoyed his covers of "Thatís life" and "All in the game". After one hour and 10 minutes, he meanders off stage, still singing. They bring him back with appropriate, low level hysteria and he does a couple of encores including "Brown-eyed girl".

We hung on to the end, in the hope that Solomon Burke would join him Ė Van Morrison wrote 2 of the tracks on Solomonís current CD. Disappointed, we were out by 5 past 10.

Difficult to see what the Van Morrison fuss has been about all these years. A good voice, some good songs, a lot of average ones. Iíd have preferred an evening with Solomon, but then we knew that before we went. It was a privilege to see Solomon; one of the last of the class old-time acts. I hope heís around for a while, to enjoy his new fame.

Copyright © John Scott Cree 2003

First published in Leisure, May 2003, 33-34.

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