Bobby Womack – Olympia Theatre, 9th July

…everything just seems as sparkling and new as the shirt on Womack’s back‘ – Siobhán Kane on Bobby Womack‘s recent gig at The Olympia Theatre.

Bobby Womack‘s most recent record, last year’s majestic The Bravest Man in the Universe was his first collection of new material since 1994’s Resurrection, and it served to remind what a singular, rich, and unusual talent he is. His latest record came off the back of a collaboration with Damon Albarn and the Gorillaz project on 2010’s Plastic Beach, and 2011’s The Fall – which perhaps provided a renewed sense of buoyancy, as Albarn went on to co-produce Womack’s newest work.

He is an artist that is most comfortable being challenged, from his early apprenticeship with The Valentinos and as guitarist for Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin, to work with Sly and the Family Stone, and Janis Joplin, to his solo work, songwriting, and collaborations with artists like The Roots and Rae & Christian.

Resurrection alluded to Womack’s own personal resurrection, as he had battled so long with drug addiction, something he writes about in his 2007 memoir I’m a Midnight Mover. This affected his relationship to music for a long time, as well as his confidence, and the 1994 record suggested something far more powerful than a new piece of work.

With this in mind, and Womack’s recent health problems (he just recovered from colon cancer), this evening’s concert is both a humbling and uplifting experience. However, even without all of that, it remains a special night. It is an opportunity for Womack to take us on the journey of his career so far. Backed by a hugely talented 13-piece band comprising; backing singers (including his daughter), a horn section, drummer, guitarists, keyboardists, and percussionist he throws himself straight into Across 110th Street, setting the bar high, and never veering from that height for almost two hours.

Though he makes reference to his latest record, with songs like Please Forgive My Heart, it is clear that he mainly wants to honour what has gone before, and helped him reach this point; from The Valentinos Looking for Love, to That’s the Way I Feel About You (from 1971’s Communication record), to the brilliant I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much (from 1985’s So Many Rivers). Each song is distinctive, but sympathetic to the next; If You Think You’re Lonely Now (from 1981’s The Poet) shares space with a moving version of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, which is offset by some of Womack’s light-hearted quips throughout the night – “I like my music like I like my lovers – easy“, and while referencing the amount of work he has amassed throughout his career, asks us, “can I take my time?

He brings us back to the root of his soul, what he grew up with – gospel music – and his version of Deep River, (a song he covered on his new record), an old spiritual song, is a very moving moment. You’re Welcome, Stop on By segues into Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and then there is a small bit of back and forth with his band, after which, he asks the audience, “well, what do you want to hear?” – someone shouts California Dreamin’ and suddenly we are transported into The Mamas & the Papas classic, with Womack infusing it with an even deeper haziness that complements the weather outside the Olympia’s walls.

We get a rousing performance of It’s All Over Now, a Valentinos original, which Womack wryly mentions was a little “hit” for The Rolling Stones (their first number one) – his own relationship with them going back some decades, having also working with Ronnie Wood on Wood’s record Now Look (and who also inducted him into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009). Life sometimes winds its way in a circular motion – with both Womack and The Rolling Stones having just performed acclaimed sets at Glastonbury.

And as if acknowledging that circularity somehow, we are back to gospel, and the stirring, emotional, Jesus Be a Fence Around Me, and by this time, everyone is collectively up from their seats, dancing, at a different kind of mass.

As we bear witness to the encore, the rhythm and blues strains of I Can Understand It – we are back to the early seventies, and Womack’s record Understanding – and everything just seems as sparkling and new as the shirt on Womack’s back.

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