NEW YORK Classic soul singing is, among countless other things, the art of the interjection. Whoo! Mmmmm. Ohhhhhh. HahahaHA! Owww. Yeah, yeah! Am I lying? Can I take my time? Listen to me! Do you feel it? Used right, those interjections can be percussion, comedy, respiration, tension, release and more. Bobby Womack, 69, used them all at City Winery on Friday night, wearing a red leather suit, a red hat and red sunglasses as he started a three-night stand.
The jacket came off to reveal a black T-shirt and serious biceps. Womack, who started his career singing gospel in the 1950s with his family group, the Womack Brothers, was flaunting his fortitude. In secular music, Womacks heyday as a hitmaker extended from 1960s soul through 1980s R&B, despite struggles with drugs and alcohol. Onstage, hes still a classic soul man.
He has said he has Alzheimers disease, and he sat down to sing some songs. But his voice moaned and quavered, yowled and slid and leapt into falsetto as he sang his hits. His catalog spans the vintage sexism of Lookin for a Love, the streetwise commentary of Harry Hippie and Across 110th Street, the romantic advice of Womans Gotta Have It, the cheaters remorse of I Wish He Didnt Trust Me So Much, the kiss-off of If You Think Youre Lonely Now and the song the Rolling Stones borrowed, Its All Over Now.
Womacks most recent album, The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL), was released in 2012, produced by XLs owner, Richard Russell, and by Damon Albarn, whose project Gorillaz has included Womack as a guest vocalist. Like the album Russell made with Gil Scott-Heron, its backup tracks use contemporary-sounding loops and electronics, while its performances bring out the creaks and wear in Womacks voice, with spoken-word interludes that reflect on age and experience. Its songs, like Womacks gospel recordings from nearly six decades ago, reach for the moral high ground. The bravest man in the universe, Womack sings, is the one who has forgiven first. A spiritual that Womack originally sang with the Womack Brothers, Deep River which was part of the 2012 album and of Fridays set now sounds like an acceptance of mortality.
Yet Womack was by no means autumnal onstage. The rasp his voice had decades ago is sharper now, and the quaver he always applied for emphasis is a little wider; his croon isnt as smooth. But he still intersperses his songs with spoken advice and exhortations, and gospel-rooted timing still catalyzes his vocals: bounding ahead of the beat, sailing sustained lines over it, flinging raspy shouts against it. Womack followed impulses: What started as his own 1984 single Love Has Finally Come at Last became a tribute to The Town I Live In by McKinley Mitchell, a 1962 single he said was played every day on the radio while Womack was growing up in Cleveland, forbidden to listen to secular music.
At my age you start to get out of wind, and I dont feel like getting out of wind tonight, Womack confided near the end of his 90-minute set. But he had been doing just the opposite, growing stronger and looser throughout the set, with longer falsetto flourishes and more potent growls. He wasnt easing off yet.
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