Since the release of 2002’s Don’t Give Up on Me, Solomon Burke has been enjoying a level of critical and popular acclaim unmatched since his 1960s heyday. Burke is basking in the same kind of Autumn glow cast upon other artists who hang around long enough to be reassessed, or have simply lived long enough to reap the rewards of being one of the “last” exponents of whatever it is they do. As much as any other rediscovered legend, Solomon Burke deserves whatever late plaudits he’s been receiving.
Unfortunately, the pattern with legends coming in out of the wilderness seems to be that between their great early recordings and their renaissance, they release a bunch of middling material as they struggle to recapture the magic. Two recent reissues from Shout! Factory capture Burke in his own particular career limbo, where the only redeeming factor of his work was found in whatever amount of energy and passion the “King of Rock ‘N’ Soul” could muster up for a generally uninspired batch of material and backing performances.
According to his own liner notes, 1995’s Soul of the Blues, features Burke performing twelve blues standards in an effort to ensure that “future generations would not lose sight of the true sound and feeling, the soul of the blues.” Sadly, this admirable idea is sabotaged by its execution. It’s hard to imagine future blues-famished generations looking to generically arranged and cliché heavy Solomon Burke albums.
For an album that has the stated intention of “updating” the blues, there’s an awful lot of narcoleptic-friendly predictability to most of the music. I have a feeling that Burke was perhaps too amenable to the suggestions of his collaborators, because apart from the singing, there’s nothing here that would sound out of place on a Bruce Willis recording. Seriously, this album’s got some boring-ass blues.
It’s on the songs that stick closest to the sound of his classic Atlantic sides where Burke’s talent is most able to rise above the tepid backing. On tracks like “Pledging My Love” and “Letter From My Darling”, rather than playing some gentrified uptown blues, the band creates the kind of organ-driven and sweetly elegiac mood that inspires Burke to reach deep into his gospel roots.
While the album has scattered moments that are befitting someone called “the King of Rock ‘N’ Soul”, they are outnumbered by stuff that better suited to a Blues Brother.
The King is better served by 1994’s Live at the House of Blues, where the urgency of live performance and the ability to dig some gems out of a classic back catalogue spurs him and his band to an altogether more lively and engaging set of music.
Featuring many of the same musicians who backed him on Soul of the Blues, the live album, taken from a 1994 New Orleans club date, is again marred by a series of schlocky arrangements, but is carried through on the vital stage presence of the main attraction. Burke clearly relishes the interaction with a live audience, and the audience’s enthusiasm spurs that mighty voice on to some great heights.
Whether delivering the country-funk of “Down in the Valley”, or a lengthy bedroom lesson on “Candy”, Burke proves himself to be a master of controlling the mood of the audience and then milking it for all it’s worth. Despite the best efforts of the casio-lite keyboard tones and toothless lead guitar, Burke’s voice is never less than captivating, and his presence always magnetic. Nowhere is this more evident than on the lead-in to “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, where a woman from the audience tells Burke: “ooh wee, Mr. Solomon, this my first time ever seeing you live in-person and ooh wee wee wee wee!” She then goes on to tell him she wants his “yum yums.”
As on Soul of the Blues, it’s when the band is less concerned with coming across as up-to-date, and instead focuses on providing a sympathetic backing, that Burke most ably overcomes all the dross. On a medley of “Beautiful Brown Eyes” and “Just a Matter of Time”, Burke works his ballad magic over a soft and uncluttered backing. As soon as that’s done, and after Burke orders some early-exiting patrons back to their seats, the band turns on a dime and heads straight into a groovin’ version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” that gives the old lion one final chance to roar before the night’s over.
At any point during the last 40 years, you could have spent an hour of your time doing a lot worse than listening to Solomon Burke sing. But when so much of his music is ooh wee!, it’s hard to justify spending much time on the stuff that’s just ho-hum.