Last night the buzz of a legend was palpable in Kentish Town. Due to the critical success of Bobby Womack’s current comeback album, The Bravest Man In The Universe, produced by Damon Albarn and XL’s Richard Russell, the crowd that thickened NW5’s streets was a real mix of diehard oldies, indie kids, soul lovers and, inevitably, hipster types.
There did seem to be an instant problem, however, in that the Albarn collaboration was decreed only worthy of a warm-up slot at 8.45pm. So an unprecedented line of punters were itchily queueing at said time, desperate to gain entry to witness the much-anticipated live coupling. Yes, we wanted to see Womack perform the hits from across the decades, but we really, really didn’t want to miss the sparse, electronic soul of Albarn & Womack, either.
Luckily we made it through the doors just as the five piece band, all in old Womack tour jumpers, came on stage, the man himself clad in iconic 70s red leather with heavy shoes, cap, button-up shirt. In the opener, Whatever Happened to the Times? Damon sat behind the piano, typically dressed in hoodie and jeans, and energetically threw himself about, acting as MC and crowd-whooper-upper. Meanwhile Womack sang mournfully: ‘I’ll always do something to make her cry’. And you believed him.
Please Forgive My Heart was a set highlight, its refrain tear-jerking, and happy-sad melodies with confessional lyrics enveloping the audience in an intimacy which would work even better in a smaller venue. Meanwhile Bobby, who has sadly suffered health problems recently, remained largely seated, and perhaps a little unsure of himself, whilst massive basslines reverberated around the Forum.
Before album title track Bravest Man In The Universe, Damon leapt up to lead the crowd’s appreciation. And just prior to the end of this too short warm-up set, his puppy-like enthusiasm won acknowledgment from the legend: ‘Let’s hear it for Damon’.
There followed a five minute breather before Womack re-emerged with a 12-strong band in the classic soul vein. The smooth, more upbeat main set aimed to please: I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much, one of his biggest 1980s hits, was a lengthy highlight, all sax solo, bended knees and plenty of grabbing and reaching upwards. Meanwhile That’s the Way I Feel About Cha, his first hit back in 1972, was a languid affair, its meandering chorus rising to a brass-soaked crescendo.
Towards the end Womack, whose stage presence was at times lolloping, almost puppet-like, reeled off a list of other greats including Jimi, Otis and Marvin. Then a massive roar preceded the start of A Change Is Gonna Come, the track originally recorded by Sam Cooke. ‘Do you feel me?’ he said to a roar, before an exit stage left.
The two halves didn’t quite hang together, but it was a memorable night and only demonstrated Womack’s continuing relevance and legacy.
Words: Stephen Emms