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Bobby Womack reaching for soul's high ground

By Jon Pareles
New York Times

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, Womack’s heyday as a hitmaker extended from 1960s soul through 1980s R&B, despite struggles with drugs and alcohol. Onstage, he’s still a classic soul man.

He has said he has Alzheimer’s 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 “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” the cheater’s remorse of “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much,” the kiss-off of “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and the song the Rolling Stones borrowed, “It’s All Over Now.”

Womack’s most recent album, “The Bravest Man in the Universe” (XL), was released in 2012, produced by XL’s 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 Womack’s voice, with spoken-word interludes that reflect on age and experience. Its songs, like Womack’s 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 Friday’s 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 isn’t 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 don’t 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 wasn’t easing off yet.

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