Sunday, February 22, 2004

The king of rock ‘n’ soul, as Solomon Burke aptly calls himself, wheeled onto the stage of the Birchmere Friday night, wrapped in red velvet and looking very much like the royalty he is.

Mr. Burke is enjoying something of a late renaissance, on the heels of 2002’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” a stellar soul album. On Friday, its songs, among them Van Morrison’s “Fast Train” and the soaring title track, didn’t sound out of place next to the aching classics “Cry to Me,” “If You Need Me” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” At 64, the king of Philly soul is confined to his throne onstage, but his mellifluous baritone showed no sign of windedness over a 90-minute set backed by the energetic Soul’s Alive orchestra.

No sign, that is, except for the interims in which Mr. Burke left the rig wheezily in park. Daughters Melanie and Candy, who live in the area, gave their dad a couple of breathers (“No Puff Daddy, OK?” he exhorted the latter). Their voices, alas, were “American Idol” so-so and their choice of material — “Over the Rainbow” and “I Will Survive,” respectively — was, shall we say, uninspired.

Oddly, Mr. Burke ignored his own rich catalog for much of the night and, instead, raided the jukebox of familiar soul greats, cobbling together numerous soul medleys from the likes of Sam Cooke (“Having a Party”), Otis Redding (“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”) and Ben E. King (“Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me”).

The rifle-shot segues were no match for the patient crooning of, say, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” To his own walk-off song, a rockin’ “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” he appended a tired and gratuitous “When the Saints Go Marching In,” letting a few hams from the audience onstage to dance Elaine Benes-style and bellow off-pitch into microphones.

Oh, well; Solomon Burke is just that kinda guy — generous to a fault, you might say.

He was flanked by two heaping arrangements of roses, most of which he passed like blessings to female stage visitors; for the guys, the rose-bestowing duty was left to the younger Miss Burke.

Social justice and the November presidential election were high on Mr. Burke’s mind Friday. “Remember to vote” was his last admonition of the evening, which is a bit of a downer in the context of transcendent gospel and soul.

Similarly, on “None of Us Are Free” he reminded the powers that be who are searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq of all the urgent social maladies here at home.

At least Mr. Burke picked the right arena for that. We’re used to that sort of thing in Washington. But did we really need a reworking of the hopped-up Tina Turner rendition of “Proud Mary”?

In the pantheon of soul music, Solomon Burke is underappreciated. Albums as good as “Don’t Give Up on Me” will help change that. Covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival will not.

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