BOBBY WOMACK: THE WOMACK LIVE (1970)
1) Intro; 2) Oh How I Miss You Baby; 3) California Dreamin'; 4) Something; 5) Everybody's Talkin'; 6) Laughin' & Clownin' / To Live The Past; 7) I'm A Midnight Mover; 8) The Preacher; 9) More Than I Can Stand.
Despite its relative brevity and despite the fact that Bobby was not even close at the time to his career peak, The Womack Live is a hell of a great record — one of the best live R&B recordings of its age, in fact. Played out somewhere in Hollywood in late 1969 or so, it really sets a great standard for how an inventive soul artist should entertain his audience if he is not endowed with either the maniacal energy of a James Brown or the virtuoso playing chops of a Hendrix.
First, it is very much a matter of the setlist. Although he already had two solo albums under his belt, not to mention the entire Valentinos career, only four songs from the studio records make it onto the record — and at least one of these merely serves as an excuse for something completely different. The rest consists of such contemporary classics as ʽSomethingʼ and ʽEverybody's Talkingʼ, supposedly already well known to the audience but seriously recast, some ecstatic improvisation (ʽThe Preacherʼ), and even a fleeting guest appearance by Percy Mayfield on his own ʽTo Live The Pastʼ — anything out there to make the show more intriguing.
Second, it is very much a matter of knowing your audience and conducting your interaction in a manner that is both energizing and intellectually inoffensive. For all of James Brown's talent at revving up his listeners, the usual soul-burning "d'ya feel alright? I said D'YA FEEL ALRIGHT?" manner of interaction can quickly get tiresome, especially in the context of a live album, so Womack finds alternate ways of entertaining — for instance, excusing himself for wanting to «play my guitar for five minutes» during ʽCaliforniaʼ, then turning the jam section into a mock-contest between himself and his second guitarist, or dragging out Percy Mayfield from nowhere, or, once again, apologizing for the onset of a «preaching» mood, or insisting on limiting the audience participation to «lonely women» only on ʽOh How I Miss You Babyʼ, or doing something else; simply announcing a song and playing it always seems like a rather boring chore to the man, but the best thing is, he never really comes across as an annoying clown or an irritating narcissistic self-admirer.
Third, of course, the level of musical performance is impeccable. He drops the guitar solo from ʽSomethingʼ, because playing like Harrison is not his thang, but the arrangement comes with organs, steel guitar, and... sitar? I'm fairly confident there was a sitar plucked back there, or at least something that arrogantly imitated a sitar, and meshed quite well with the other instruments. (Of course, there was no sitar on the original, but all the more reason to put one in the reinvention). The guitar solo on ʽCalifornia Dreamin'ʼ combines old-school jazz with new-school funk and could well have been much longer, except that Womack does not dare to burden the audience too long with free-flight improvisation. And ʽI'm A Midnight Moverʼ gets transformed into a sweaty R&B jam that incorporates everything that flies through Bobby's mind at the moment — even a brief excerpt from ʽShake Your Moneymakerʼ.
Thus, the only reason why The Womack Live is not a superb top-level live album is that there is only so much you can do with that sort of set of limitations — a competent, but not extraordinary, backing band, a soulful, hard-working, but not vocally unique singer, and a set of pleasant, but not jaw-droppingly original songs (well, ʽSomethingʼ is a bit more than that, but it'd be a bit of a cheat to highly rate any artist just because he covered ʽSomethingʼ). Usually, though, such limitations, especially in a live setting, would probably result in utter boredom — all the more glory to Mr. Womack for making it as exciting, enjoyable, and unpredictable as possible. Thumbs up.
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