Bobby Womack – A Deep River of Talent

A year ago today I had the pleasure – no, the honour – of seeing Bobby Womack perform live in Liverpool.

I’ve seen many concerts in my life, from the big stars (BB King, James Brown, David Bowie, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd etc), to lesser known, but sometimes better artists – including one of my favourites of all time, Roddy Frame (ex-Aztec Camera), and country singer John Prine.

I’m not going to force myself to decide on the best gig I’ve ever seen. Many hold a place in my heart for different reasons. For instance, I first time I saw John Prine the last night I drank (22nd June 2004). I did a ‘farewell tour’ of a few pubs before the concert, and went home to listen to Roddy Frame’s ‘Surf’ with my last drink.

James Brown was just a week later (30t June 2004). My first concert sober since the mid 80’s. Imagine that. I had to pick James Brown didn’t I? I’m normally happy if I can sit down (yes!) or, if I have to stand, to tap my foot… But James Brown? And with seats just a few rows from the front?

When the Godfather of Soul tells you to get on up, you get on up. When he tells you to get on down, you get on down. And sadly, he didn’t mean sit down.

But it was an amazing experience and one I’ll never forget (unlike BB King – I know I saw him, with blues-legend Peter Green as support, but I couldn’t tell you any more, other than my wife at the time said I wasn’t too happy about it for some reason). It’s just a drunken blur of a memory.

But Bobby Womack. 2014. The man was dying. It was obvious from the moment he was helped on stage by his assistant. He seemed to struggle to see too, holding out trying to find the mic stand. The first impressions were worrying. I’d always wanted to see Womack live, but not like this…

It all changed the moment he opened his mouth. Starting – surprisingly – with probably his most well known song, Across 110th Street. His voice was amazing.

This is a man who had battled two cancers (prostate and colon) and had Alzheimer’s.

His body was clearly a wreck. About half-way through he sat down, and he simply couldn’t stand up again. His assistant and his daughter (a singer in his band) tried to help him back on his feet several times, but he just couldn’t get up.

This wasn’t a classic James Brown fall-to-his-knees and be helped up by his assistant show (as great as that was), this was a genuinely ill man – nearly 70 years old – putting on an amazing show despite everything.

I think most of us knew we were coming to see him for the last time (the first time too, in my case) and I think he also knew that.

It was one of only two UK concerts on the tour. I was sure Glasgow, the following night, would be cancelled – but amazingly he turned up and by all accounts put in a great performance.

No matter what the Alzheimer’s had done to his mind (he did make a couple of mistakes), and the cancer to his body, his voice was left untouched. It was simply stunning. And his humour and charisma shone through the pain.

Even at the end, after being helped off – clearly in agony – he came back out for an encore, much to the surprise of everyone, even his band (and some of the audience had left – why?!).

At the end of that encore – with the lights now on, standing off the stage but still holding his mic – he said something like “I’m not gone yet!” and sang one final song. Deep River – a traditional African American song he covered on his last studio album. It was a sucker-punch to my emotions.

There’s a debate about the song’s meaning – escaping slavery, being a possibility. But the spiritual nature of it always makes me think of wanting to escape the pain of this life for the possibility of a better one in Heaven. And that’s how it sounded as Bobby sang it, from the wings of the Liverpool Philharmonic.

It’s something I’ll never forget and, as I said on the night, and in the intro to this piece, it was an honour to witness one of his final performances.

He died June 27th that year.

I’d be hard pushed to list my favourite songs of his but a few, in no particular order, Harry Hippie, Fact of Life/He’ll Be There When the Sun Goes Down (Medley), The Preacher/More Than I Can Stand (Medley, live), Fire and Rain, Please Forgive My Heart… I’ll stop, I could write fifty more.

If you aren’t familiar with Bobby Womack’s work, a good starting point is ‘The Best of Bobby Womack – The Soul Years’ available on Spotify. As well as an amazing catalogue of his own songs, he wrote and co-wrote some classics (The Rolling Stone’s first hit, “It’s All Over Now”, George Benson’s hit “Breezin'”) and played guitar on songs such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”.

Please, if you aren’t familiar with him, check him out. He’ll live on longer than any of us.

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