I’ve wanted to see Stax legend William Bell for years. On the occasions he’d cropped up in recent times – from performing for President Obama at the White House to appearing on Later with Jools Holland (how that for spanning the spectrum? From the sublime…) – he’s looked and sounded like he could still cut the mustard. Having now ticked him off the bucket list I couldn’t be happier to report he was well worth the wait.
At the Union Chapel last night he impressed straight from the start. It’s difficult to hear anyone sing ‘Easy Comin’ Out (Hard Goin’ In)’ without breaking into a smile and that expression was present for the following 90 minutes. ‘Any Other Way’ followed, the first of the real classics, and what a set of pipes this man has - tender yet rock solid assured.
Now aged 77, Bell’s voice was as strong as ever, fit as a flea, and managed to make wearing dark sunglasses in a chapel look like the coolest and more natural thing in the world. What I like in soul artists is when they can still feel contemporary rather than a cheesy old cabaret act. Mavis Staples does this supremely well and Bell does too. Half a dozen tracks from his new This Is Where I Live album underscored he’s not reliant on ancient hits to connect to his audience. ‘The Three of Me’, ‘I Will Take Care of You, ‘Mississippi-Arkansas Bridge’, ‘Poison In The Well’ and the title track all being personal reflections and breathed fresh life into his set and the Stax sound.
Bell kept his band on their toes throughout, and they were up to the not inconsiderable task, by frequently “breaking it down” and going off on a tangent. This could in lesser hands be tiresome but here it worked, not least during an already spectacular ‘Everybody Loves A Winner’ when he stopped to testify with the last of the evening light shining through the stained glass chapel windows.
This Is Where I Live takes Bell full circle, back on Stax, and as he reminded us, he was the label’s first solo male vocalist. ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ cut for the fledging label in 1961 and written by Bell when he was 17, “I was an old soul even then”. That Bell is still around, one of the last standing from that era, from the birth of Stax and, with that record, what we now call Southern Soul, is remarkable in itself, that he remains in such shape and voice is nothing short of incredible. There’s no need to make allowances, to overlook any shortcomings, as there are none. Needless to say the song was a highlight.
The Judy Clay role for ‘Private Number’ as taken by Bell’s “attractive lady” backing vocalist whose name I didn’t catch beyond, I think, Suzie. If William really does have her number he’s a lucky dog. ‘Everyday Is A Holiday’, ‘Eloise (Hang On In There)’ and ‘Tryin’ To Love Two’ all got an airing as did ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ and although Bell isn’t a flashy or show-offy soul singer – one of the qualities I most like about him – he did allow himself one moment to hold a note during ‘Lover’ with superb control.
An extended ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, reprised on this new LP – and let’s not forget a lot of these songs Bell at least co-wrote – topped off the evening in a style. Back in ’68 Bell and Booker T wrote ‘Tribute To A King’ for the departed Otis Redding. I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone other than William Bell more worthy of wearing the soul crown today.