It had all the makings of a wonderful evening — Ray Charles at the Greek Theater at the beginning of a holiday weekend. What more could you ask for? Time, apparently. The first show of the Greek’s season was also the first show of Charles’ summer tour, and it showed. The 17-piece Ray Charles Orchestra was either under-rehearsed or had yet to shed the rust of the off season. The rhythm section was especially sodden, barely registering, and when they were noticed, it was because they played with a negligible sense of swing. The 13-piece horn section strove to compensate, but simply playing more emphatically wasn’t the answer. When they were forced to carry the arrangement –on “Busted,” for example — it served only to emphasize the stiffness of their own performance.
Charles, whose coughs and occasional gruffness betrayed his need for a few weeks of spring training, tried to take matters into his own hands, but even his accomplished left hand was unable to instill some rhythm and soul into the proceedings.
Instead, he called for a program that brought the focus back squarely on his singing and playing. On “Georgia” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” with the band relegated to the background, it was possible to concentrate on Charles’ breezily soulful vocals and keyboard work, which made for some fine but low-key music.
Things kicked into high-gear when the Raylettes were brought onstage, accompanied by special guest Billy Preston. It felt like another show had started once Charles and Preston took over. They teased and challenged each other, treating “I Believe” (with a smoldering vocal from Raylette Ms. Tonette) and “What’d I Say” the way cats treat balls of string, playfully batting the groove back and forth, as Charles’ keyboard work cut across Preston’s Hammond B-3 lines.
Opener Buddy Guy also outshone his band. A performer as over the top as his polka dot Stratocaster, Guy pleased the aud with his antics as much as his music, playing better known material such as “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” and “Feels Like Rain” while mugging and joking around and wandering through the seats while playing incendiary solos.
Charles will appear in New York at B.B. King’s Blues Club Aug. 1-2. Guy plays New York’s Beacon Theater on June 16.