Classic Soul Music

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Let me make it simple: what a difference a year makes! The Hollywood Bowl, 2005, a show that produced mixed responses from yours truly. No need to revisit any of that: The Viper Room, Los Angeles, 2006: a non-stop soulful, energetic and totally real performance that I wouldn't have missed for anything! With a little prompting from my Soul colleague Michael, who saw the show on Tuesday (Sept 12), I headed to one of the clubs on Sunset Strip usually known for rock and alternative bands. The venue probably holds all of 100 people and when we're talking about seeing a performer 'up close,' we mean 'up close' in the way that many an R&B performer of the '60s would recall when they did shows in what used to be called the 'chitlin' circuit'.

The Viper Room ain't part of the chitlin' circuit and as one patron noted, 'I've never seen so many 'straight' people here!' referring to the older age group and its attire (no cut-off jeans, spiked hair, etc. which might be the norm at this Sunset Blvd spot). But...the place was filled to capacity with folks who love them some Natalie Cole. And, the diva delivered!

The focus was on her new album "Leavin'" which at first blush seems like an interesting mix, with tunes penned by Randy Newman, Fiona Apple, Shelby Lynne, Neil Young and others whose music isn't normally associated with Ms. Cole, who - it would be true to say - has always had a penchant for rocking out: her 'Live!' album from the '70s, shamefully NOT available on CD, includes The Beatles' "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and Doris Day/Sly Stone's "Que Sera Sera" and have been witnessing Natalie in action since 1975, I can testify that she loves to stretch the musical boundaries!

I hadn't yet heard the album when I went to the show so seeing Natalie preview the material last night was a particular enticement for me to take my butt down to the Viper Room. And am I glad I did! While I am not familiar with some of the songs (like the Fiona Apple tune and the Neil Young classic "Old Man" - sorry, I never was a rocker myself!), I was soon drawn in. With a funky-ass band and two bad-ass background singers, Natalie grooved and grooved, sweated and gave it up with the kind of energy and excitement that echoed her mid-'70s shows when she was experiencing a non-stop run of R&B/pop hits.

Particular highlights from the new album (due out September 26 and a definite addition at Soul that week: a sho-nuff groovy cover of the late Ronnie Dyson's "The More You Do It (The More I Like It Done To Me"), penned as Natalie noted by Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, the two writer-producers responsible for all those Cole Capitol classics; the new album's title track, a Shelby Lynne composition that has a 'Southern soul' feel to it; and an original composition, "5 Minutes Away," written by Natalie and producer Dallas Austin which was an infectious, memorable highlight of the night (complete with audience participation) that has all the makings of a hit single. I was surprised at how much I also enjoyed Natalie's cover of Aretha's classic "Daydreaming": as a Franklin purist, I seldom like renditions of her timeless tunes but, echoing the words of Mr. Gaye, I gotta give it up - Natalie and co. put a nice groove behind it that would make Ms. Queen Of Soul proud.

While not on the album, her stunning reading of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" (a song I am most familiar with via Nina Simone) with Natalie accompanying herself at the piano (something she may want to consider for an entire future album project since it allows a creative freedom that artists like Simone, Laura Nyro, Roberta Flack and Zulema all experiened) was an undeniable highlight of a great night.

Respecting the desire of her enthusiastic audience to hear some Cole staples, Natalie obliged with a fiery "Annie Mae," a poignant "Inseparable" and a truth-tellin'-no-joke "I'm Catching Hell" and while I've never been able to personally endorse the sentiments in the lyric (paraphrased as 'stay with a fool until someone better comes along' - hell to the no, if it ain't working, kick 'em to the curb, baby, that's what this Aquarian says!) , Natalie tore it up, investing it with the kind of fervor and intensity that made her one of the most dynamic performers of the '70s and early '80s. For good measure, encores were "Pink Cadillac" and the inevitable toe-tapper "This Will Be," which still sounds hella-good!

I was blown away by the soulful groove that Natalie's band and singers created with and for her and there is NO doubt that this was one of the best shows I've seen in a long, long time. While some may still yearn for those superb jazz stylings Natalie gave us during her Elektra years, this is the kinda stuff that first put her on the musical map and while some music buyers may have to 'adjust' to Natalie singing Sting and co. on her new album, I can't wait to hear it after seeing this stomp-down performance.

Oh...and karma being a 'mother,' as I was leaving the venue, I bumped right into Natalie herself with whom I have not spoken for a year since our last encounter at The Hollywood Bowl. For inquiring minds, we hugged, we laughed and I told her I genuinely honestly loved the show; and she in return thanked me for being there with real no-kidding sincerity (and trust me, I know the difference between sincerity and bullshit - as Aquarians, both Ms. Cole and I know when someone is blowin' smoke up our respective asses!)

Get the album when it comes out; if you're in L.A., go see the last night tonight (Thursday September 14)... And I'm just grinning cause I truly did get to give it up for Ms. NC...and I love to give it up (more on that another day!!!)...

Soulfully, David N.


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