Many things have gone unchanged in a secular Solomon Burke show over the past 2½ decades — the medleys, the sanctifying, the tributes to old soul singers, the purity of his delivery. As he mounts a revival catering to fans of legendary singer-songwriters, the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul only demonstrates his worthiness to stay seated in his well-earned throne. With new album “Don’t Give Up on Me” (Fat Possum) featuring material written specifically for Burke by the likes of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, Burke is slowly bringing new songs into the concert fold and giving them a presence in line with his 1960s classics. Album is one of the top two or three discs of the year so far, and when combined with a performance this winning, it shouldn’t be long before Burke’s revival, which started with his induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year, is on a par with those of John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy.
Despite having 20 top-40 R&B hits from 1961-75, Burke has, in the mainstream, often been lost in the shadows of his ’60s soul-singing brethren — Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Ben E. King and even Arthur Conley, the one-hit wonder known for “Sweet Soul Music.” (Back in the day, Burke was the headliner among those singers.) Unlike other performers with “soul legend” attached to their name, Burke always delivers a full-bodied concert and still possesses the pipes necessary to reach back and deliver effectively tunes he recorded while in his mid-20s.
Assisting the 66-year-old Philadelphia native on his ride back to those glory days is the enormous band behind him — woodwinds, keyboards and four singers to his right; brass, drums, keyboards and, of all things, a harp to his left, with his sons Solomon Jr. and Selassie flanking him alongside two guitarists. Burke spent much of the night seated on a red wooden throne, discarding his cape, suit jacket, sunglasses and fedora as the night wore on and the sweat poured. (Besides singing — Selassie has a fine Sam Cooke quality in his voice — the sons continually mop Burke’s brow, neck and head.)
Burke opened with the title track from his new disc, a Dan Penn tune that weds country and soul in a manner most songwriters won’t even venture near yet fits so naturally in Burke’s tenor. The album, produced by Joe Henry, presents Burke with an understated quintet behind him. On the four new tunes that made it into Wednesday’s set, though, the arrangements have been inflated with horns and electricity, giving them a pleasant sense of historical weight. “Soul Searchin’,” from Beach Boy Brian Wilson and Andy Paley, sounds like an overlooked gem from the summer of ’65; Morrison’s “Fast Train” echoes Leadbelly; “None of Us Are Free,” a Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill/Brenda Russell gospel composition, could well have come from the James Cleveland songbook.
And then, of course, there were the hits — lively versions of “Down in the Valley” and “Cry to Me,” a wondrous medley of the ballads “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes” with a dash of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” thrown in for dramatic effect. “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” the 1965 number that was his biggest pop hit, was bundled together with Cooke’s “Having a Party” and the Impressions’ “Amen,” a three-tune monster that’s found on one of the greatest live albums of all time, “Soul Live!,” a 1985 release of an ’81 Burke club show.
That album helped jumpstart Burke’s career in the mid-’80s, along with the pronouncement from R&B expert Peter Guralnick in his 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music” that Burke was the greatest soul singer of all time. Producer Jerry Wexler, who recorded all of the Southern greats in the ’60s, concurred. But at the time, Burke stuck with religious material — he still spends the third Sunday of every month leading worshippers at the Miracle Theater in Inglewood — and making gospel albums; a Pointblank/Virgin disc released in ’97 attempted to update him as a Prince sound-alike and did little to bolster the singer’s reputation.
Fat Possum, the enigmatic Oxford, Miss., label that’s home to R.L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, has forged a reputation as the prime keeper of raw, unadulterated blues. Label, distribbed by L.A. punk sovereigns Epitaph, has in “Don’t Give Up on Me” the most polished release in its catalog, and still it beams with the honesty and grit that has defined its other releases. Collectively, the trio make for a rather potent force.