CARLA THOMAS: LIVE AT THE BOHEMIAN CAVERNS (1967; 2007)
1) Introduction (Al Bell); 2) You're Gonna Hear From Me; 3) Medley: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah / A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening / It's A Lovely Day Today / On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever); 4) Mas Que Nada; 5) Gee Whiz; 6) Evenin'; 7) A Lot Of Livin' To Do; 8) B-A-B-Y; 9) Many, Many Thanks; 10) Never Be True; 11) Rufus Dialogue No. 1; 12) Fine And Mellow; 13) Did You Ever Love A Woman; 14) Rufus Dialogue No. 2; 15) The Dog.
Queen of Soul or not, apparently, Carla's status back in the day did not make her eligible for a live album. Her first chance at this arrived as late as 2001, with Live In Memphis featuring a nearly 60-year old performer singing ʽGee Whizʼ with the same teenage abandonment with which an old, bald, and conservatively ribald Mike Love launches into ʽSurfin' U.S.A.ʼ in the 21st century — but I do not have the complete album on hand, and I think I might be forgiven for bypassing it altogether and briefly concentrating, instead, on this fun archive release that unearthes a well-recorded show, played on May 25, 1967 at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington, DC. It was still a pretty good time for Carla — Aretha Franklin's star had only just begun to shine, and she could still wield that «Queen of Soul» title with some limited credibility. To make matters even more solidly royal, father Rufus also makes an appearance, sealing the deal with a small after-set of two songs, one groove, two long rants, and a number of sleazy, sexist jokes.
Three things speak in favor of the recording. One, the quality — it is always nice to have a small-scale, intimate club show recorded on a professional level, with the close rapport between the singer and an appreciative audience well audible. Two, the backing band — a batch of R&B and jazz professionals here, with a still little-known young man called Donny Hathaway sitting at the piano and distinguishing himself as a fine, lyrical player in his own right. And three, the setlist itself, which is anything but predictable, and has Carla explore a whole range of styles: in addition to some of her biggest hits (ʽGee Whizʼ, ʽB-A-B-Yʼ), she sings some soul, some jazz, some blues, some pop standards, and even some Latin stuff. This is just Carla Thomas, yes, and there is nothing exceptional, but it's all done with style and grace, and the element of diversity is quite pleasing. A minor quibble is the lack of backing vocalists (which pretty much annuls the main hook of ʽB-A-B-Yʼ), but the supportive cheers and whoops of the audience sometimes make up for that anyway.
Good as she is, though, once father Rufus gets to replace her on that stage, it becomes painfully clear how much nepotism was involved in Carla's career — the father has ten times more charm, power, and brute subtlety than the daughter, as he even manages to reinvent Billie Holiday's ʽFine And Mellowʼ for his own purposes, and proves himself the ultimate master of contrastive vocal dynamics: as supportive as the listeners were to Carla, it takes Rufus to really shake them up, and by the time that he gets to his trademark ʽThe Dogʼ groove, everybody has been wound up and rejuvenated. Not that there's anything criminal or immoral in that — just stating the obvious: Rufus Thomas was a great R&B / blues howler, while Carla was an elegant, pleasant mediocrity at best. Very nice lady, though, and not entirely untalented — it's just that they never managed to find a properly nurturing soil for these talents.