Vivid Festival: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Saturday, May 25
There was a bit of a wait – and that was more worrying than normal, given Bobby had cancelled the previous night’s show, due to health concerns. But then the band members took their positions and with the first parps from a happy-dancing horn section and three pumped-up backing singers (including Womack’s daughter) it felt good. We had the announcement that Womack was on the way. And then he stumble-walked to the stage, frail, he tripped a little. But it was happening, his Vivid Festival performance at the Sydney Opera House was about to get going.
Dressed in red leather suit and hat, a bit like something from a geriatric rewrite of the movie Breakin’ he looked, for the most part, sad and silly but his confidence, his aura, and of course that back-catalogue all screamed hip. And the audience all screamed for Womack. Everyone was on his side.
And so the show started with Across 110th Street and it was almost magical. And then the early inclusion of Harry Hippie and I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much suggested very good things.
But there was a dip.
Womack, looking and sounding for the most part like some broken-arsed, crack-beaten street bum suddenly made good, the hard living, the cancer, the recent death of his brother, whatever it was that was weighing him down – and you’d have to be allowed to take your pick from a long list – he seems almost ready to join the sort of cruise-ship revivalist act as offered by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Where a yelp, if pained enough, passes for the final remnants of a soul croon because, hey, the audience is just so ecstatic to see what is left of what they’re sure they once loved – or, in some cases, were told – maybe just earlier in the day, even, that really they should absolutely get on board – I heard the sound of death approaching.
The band was, for the most part, cooking. And they do a good job, for the most part, of covering the cracks.
Womack too is still working hard even if sometimes it comes across as hardly working. I loathed his most recent album, The Bravest Man In The Universe; a ridiculous recasting/cover-up of a thin-bleat strangulation. But fuck me the title track tonight was superb. It plays to whatever is left of Bobby’s strengths. That way he has – still, even if less often – of pulling you in to whatever amount of soul power he can harness.
The horn section was dynamite – even if it was really just one trumpeter that made them look cool and the saxophonist that made them sound cool. The drummer and percussionist were superb; particularly the percussionist and the bassist and guitar player were never going to let the side down. The keyboardist, stoic, was the musical director when this unit needed one. And Bobby’s hype-man was actually the best thing to watch, an enthusiastic cheerleader and ad-hoc conductor from side of stage. Fascinating. He sold the story of the songs as Womack mumbled and grumbled through his monologues. Sometimes he told the story where Womack simply couldn’t.
The longer the show went the more obvious it was that it’s actually cruel to applaud and promote this man as a capable and able (and willing) entertainer. I love his great records. I admire his story, loved his voice once and his chops as hired hand to some of music’s true heroes.
But his phone-in of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come was frankly pretty awful. Yes, he has more right than most to sing it. But his voice is gone. And it goes very quickly when put to use; it fell away – at times almost completely – as the show limped across the line.
But we’re conditioned, I think, to applaud the faux-gospel stomp, the music we overtly recognise as church-branded/affiliated but street-smart too and sassy.
Towards the end of the show I felt like I was watching a dead man walking. And then a dying man doing his best to just keep on walking. When he stumbled off, finally, punch-drunk and brow-beaten I wanted to cry. Not because I was moved. And maybe because I was nearly appalled.
A day on I’m still wondering, for the most part, what I saw and if, in any real way at all, I can justify suggesting that thinnest of compliments in such a context: “well, I’m glad I got to see him”. No, I’m not at all sure that’s true.