Bobby Womack has had a tough 2012. Early on he fought with pneumonia and was then diagnosed with colon cancer in March. Thankfully both were treated successfully, but it would take time to tell what effect both had on a man whose career has spanned more than 50 years. After a few releases in the ’90s following his battle with drug addiction and a 2000 Christmas album, the legendary singer took a step back from the limelight, and appeared to fade into what seemed like retirement. That is, until he re-emerged in early 2010 on “Stylo”, Gorillaz’ lead single from their third album Plastic Beach, which also featured Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey.
His work with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn eventually lead to his first album in 12 years, The Bravest Man in the Universe; a well-received release co-produced by Albarn and XL Recordings owner Richard Russell that retained his soulful roots while embracing emerging genres including dubstep, grime and street bass. At the HMV Forum on November 27, Womack treated fans to a performance that covered both his entire career, and convincingly showed that his talent still has the strength to continue for many years on.
Opening with his most recent release, Womack was joined by Albarn on a dusty piano and Russell on a drum pad alongside a percussionist and bassist. The setup was small, and felt intimate despite the size of the location. Performing songs such as “Whatever Happened to the Times,” “Please Forget My Heart” and “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” his heart-felt vocals were given the perfect amount of space to be fully appreciated by the musicians, something especially notable with “Deep River” as Albarn’s sporadic playing on the keys supported his voice without drawing attention from it.
The simple chorus of “Stupid” worked as the perfect point for the crowd to get involved, and Albarn served as hype man engaging the crowd to chant it, a moment that felt like everyone in the room was emotionally connected, singing it from the heart as we bared witnessed a special performance from a renowned singer unlike any other.
Closing the first set with the cover of upbeat gospel song “Jubilee” Womack and the band left the stage to a thrilled crowd that was eagerly awaiting the next. As a large number of musicians made their way on stage it quickly became clear that the second half was going to be much bigger than the first half’s humble setup.
Returning 10 minutes later than expected due to his issues with his voice, Womack eased any qualms once he opened with his 1972 hit “Across 110th Street”, belting out the vocals over an incredible performance from the musicians. Cruising through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s with tracks like “I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much,” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It” his voice shined, and was helped by his exceptional backing singers. Among them were his daughter Gina, who shared a performance of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change is Gonna Come”, and Altrina Grayson, who arguably stole the show with her phenomenal voice as she and Womack closed the night with their 1985 Wilton Felder hit “No Matter How High I Get.” The song also featured a great solo from saxophonist Chazzy Green.
Following his exit off stage the crowd demanded more, and with rapturous applause, emphatic chants of “Bobby” and enough foot-stomping to induce an earth-quake Womack gave in, returning to perform his cover of the classic “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas.
The night was a great reminder of why Womack has earned his place in history, and why his legacy isn’t over yet. Many of the greats from his era had their successes cut short by tragedies from drugs to affairs to deaths with few, he included, still around today. It’s fortunate that he was able to get through his rough patch successfully, becoming a wiser, and more human version of the man he was in his heyday. Though he has aged over his long-running career, his voice remains timeless.