Japan Blues & Soul Carnival


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2010

Photo by C.B. Liddell

Missing the first two support acts at this year’s Japan Blues & Soul Carnival, I arrive at the Hibiya Open Air Concert Hall in time to see number two on the bill, reggae-tinged bluesman Corey Harris. Facing the audience with only an acoustic guitar, Harris is nevertheless a formidable presence, but comes across as a bit surly, which kind of undercuts the mellow vibe of his music. As he begins yet another song with the classic blues cliché—“I woke up this morning…”—he looks like he got out of the wrong side of the bed as well.

Perhaps he’s not too taken with the audience, who may have had a few too many lagers–possibly related to the German beer festival on the other side of the park. But forget the bratwurst and pilsner: the headliner, Solomon Burke, the self-proclaimed “King of Rock and Soul,” is about to take the stage.

Weighing in at an estimated 190kg, an appearance by Burke is as much a logistical operation as a musical performance. His backing band–guitars, drums, keyboards, strings and brass (including a recent Japanese recruit on sax)–take their positions on either side of a large, velvet-covered throne, building up the sense of anticipation.

Then ‘King’ Solomon appears, but instead of a regal presence striding majestically down the red carpet, the 70-year old singer is rolled on in a wheelchair—and I swear I can hear the axle creaking under the strain!

Now comes the tricky part: transferring the ‘King’ to his throne. In a well-choreographed move, his two violinists, both sexy young women in tight-fitting little black dresses and a couple of backing singers move in front of the throne to provide a screen, while the great man is eased up and in. After a few adjustments, the human curtain parts to reveal Burke resplendent in a sparkly violet suit, pimp hat and shades, a slightly surprising wardrobe for a performer who is also an ordained church minister.

All the effort it took to get Burke on stage is no doubt only a fraction of what it took to get him to Japan for his first-ever trip here. So, appropriately enough, the first song is “Nothing’s Impossible,” the laid-back, shimmering title track from Burke’s latest album, produced by legendary Memphis soul producer Willie Mitchell shortly before his death earlier this year. Like almost everything Burke has done in the last ten years, it is class, and yet another testament to the incredible revival of his career that started with 2002’s Grammy-Award-winning album Don’t Give Up on Me.

As Burke gets into his stride, the fact that he’s chair-bound starts to seem irrelevant as his rich, warm, and still very powerful voice—cushioned by an expert musical ensemble—reaches out and fills the auditorium.

The set list jumps between the twin poles of his career: the early ’60s, when he penned and performed classics like “Cry to Me” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (songs which were also covered by the likes of Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones), and the last astounding decade when Burke expanded his repertoire with songs specially written for him by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, among others.

We get a powerful version of the Waits-penned “Diamond in Your Mind,” which starts off cursed as a guitar lead comes unplugged, causing a prolonged high-pitched screech. As roadies deal with the problem, Burke resets the mood. “One more time, if we can get Tweetie Bird out of there,” he jokes.

Unable to express himself by moving around the stage like other performers, he turns his body into a giant expressive tool. Sauntering through the loose gospel vibe of the song, he sways and bobs in his chair, and then takes off his hat to point to his bald head, now shining with sweat–just like a big, glittering diamond.

Feeling the strain without showing it in his voice, he now reveals that a couple of his backing singers are in fact his offspring, and impinges on the audience’s generosity to shove them into the limelight. Candy Burke and her brother King Solomon Haile Selassie Burke (sic) do passable versions of gospel and disco numbers while the pater familias gets his second wind for the final push, which kicks off with an emotional version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”

One of the main seams mined by soul is the apologetic love song, and King Solomon is no different. As he moves into the mea culpa sentimentalism of “Till I Get It Right” and “Don’t Give Up on Me,” he breaks out a couple of buckets of roses and, through his intermediaries, starts trying to hand them out from the front of the stage. While this provides a fitting climax to a Burke show anywhere else in the world, here it seemed to worry the stewards while confusing the audience, who weren’t comfortable with the notion of trekking down to the front of the stage without permission.

This served to emphasize that, while music knows no boundaries, much of the stagecraft and repartee that Burke engages in with audiences were lost on this occasion, making what would have been a great show into a merely good one.