Bobby Womack doesn’t like to be rushed. “Can I do it right for you tonight? he asked Sunday on the closing night of the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements fall showcase at the Riverfront Theatre. “I like to do it right and take my time.”
Even when things are all wrong. He turned “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much” into an epic psychodrama. In the song, the narrator finds himself crushing hard for his best friend’s wife, and agonizes between lust and betrayal.
In the middle of the song, he brought the music down to a hush. “Have you ever been caught up?” he asked the audience. “Don’t be ashamed (to answer), they can’t see you in the dark.” The horns rose up behind him, and the perspective shifted to the other man and his troubled marriage: “Seems like the more you do, the more she don’t.” And then with a final series of anguished fist pumps on each syllable, the singer dropped the curtain: “I wish you didn’t trust me so much.”
The 68-year-old master was back at work. After a health scare that sent him to the hospital earlier this year to treat cancer and diabetes, he finds himself newly relevant, thanks to a strong, recent album recorded with Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn, “The Bravest Man in the Universe.” But he ignored the album Sunday, in part because the textured electronic atmospherics and sparse arrangements aren’t a good fit for his road band. The ensemble, which expanded to as many as 13 members for certain songs, presents a full-on soul revue, with a horn section and a trio of backing singers.
Instead, Womack went back to where he began. “True lyrics never go out of style,” he said, and he had reason to be confident.
Once the man who never likes to rush anything started taking his time and stretching out on album in the ‘70s, he became a cornerstone R&B artist. A child of the gospel era – he was 10 years old when he started performing with his four brothers in the ‘50s – he built a bridge from soul singles to the album era. His songs took on a conversational tone, where his brief monologues made it sound like he was talking one-one-one to each listener, as he dispensed advice and bended-knee confessions. He wrote about adult issues, regret and redemption, slipping into the roles of poet, philosopher, preacher and philanderer as the story dictated.
He looked fit Sunday in a red outfit and leather cap, his voice still bearing its gospel pedigree with extended, wordless cries and soaring pleas. The iconic “Across 110th Street” made for a fitting opener, a story of personal hardship that blazed across movie soundtracks by Quentin Tarantino and Ridley Scott decades after it was written. The band presented the song’s gritty, cinematic sweep with congas percolating beneath riffing horns and the hard-charging back-up singers.
The emotional ante rose with “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out.” Womack played the band – cuing horn riffs and guitar solos – while summarizing the lost decades when he was brought low by health issues and drug addiction before his recent comeback.
“I’ve been through a few changes, I’ve been sick in the hospital,” he said. “But I’m well tonight.”
He took a seat a few times, but his vigorous voice and engaged presence were fully in the moment. After 70 minutes he was done. The ending was somewhat abrupt -- the only moment when the show felt, well, rushed. But before he departed, he drifted back to honor those who couldn’t make it with him. He checked off the names of peers and inspirations, from Chicago’s Tyrone Davis and Johnnie Taylor to Marvin Gaye and James Brown. And, of course, there was his mentor, the late soul great Sam Cooke.
“I feel his presence tonight,” Womack said, and he delivered Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” with a tear in his voice. Cooke’s performance of the 1964 classic was full of smooth, measured yearning – a song of hope from a young man’s vantage point. Womack brought a gruffer sense of world-weariness. The change hoped for in the song still hasn’t arrived, and desperation has replaced optimism.
“It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die,” Womack sang. “Cause I don't know what's out there beyond the sky.”
As usual, he was taking his time. Only now, he was holding on to each note as if it were a lifeline.
Bobby Womack set list Sunday at the Riverfront Theatre:
1 Across 110th Street
2 Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out
3 Harry Hippie
5 I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much
6 That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha
7 Woman’s Gotta Have It
8 You’re Welcome, Stop on By
9 A Change is Gonna Come
10 Lookin’ for a Love
11 If You Think You’re Lonely Now
12 (No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still be Lookin’ Up to You
13 I Can Understand ItCopyright © 2015, RedEye