Solomon Burke,
Soul Alive!
(Rounder, 1984; 2002)

Equal parts soul, blues, house party and revival meeting, Soul Alive! presents Solomon Burke recorded live in 1981 at the Phoenix 1 Club in Washington, D.C. Originally released by Rounder in 1984, this first time on CD reissue comes hard on the heels of Burke's 2002 comeback album Don't Give Up on Me and catches Burke at his rocking soulful preaching best on a two-CD set that presents the early show on one disc, the late show on the other. The intimate recording method puts you right there with the audience in the club for a hot night of music and lessons in love.

The Realtones start right in playing during the old-fashioned introduction, and the tape keeps rolling as Burke takes the stage and launches right into "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love." The crowd is miked almost as loud as the music, and they're clapping and yelling along. Burke keeps a running monologue going through all of the songs, giving the men advice on how to deal with women and vice versa. Typically, a track on this disc will consist of a number of songs lumped together as a medley as Burke and band seamlessly roll from one song into the next, with Burke preaching the gospel of love all the while.

The heart of the first set is a tour de force medley of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's "Take Me (As I Am)" and the Ray Charles classic "I Can't Stop Lovin' You" that combines soul singing and sermonizing, complete with a B.B. King-style rap on respect that runs all of 15:31. When Burke exhorts the crowd by yelling "yeah!" and the crowd yells back "yeah, yeah, yeah," you might just find yourself yelling "yeah!" right on time with the crowd (especially if you are alone in your car). "Down in the Valley" is dominated by horns, organ, bass and drums in a soulful version that blasts right into the Creedence classic "Proud Mary" to close the first set in a triumphant up-tempo workout.

We'll understand if you need a breather before the second set, which again features soulful and bluesy medleys where the songs blend into each other and form a soundtrack for the heartfelt preaching on his favorite themes of life, love and understanding. By the second medley, he's preaching to men about women and to women about men with great segues back and forth from sermonizing to singing; Burke is really a master at this, as you'll see when he kicks back into Joe Tex's "Hold What You've Got" with the Realtones running hot.

"Cry to Me" closes the second set, kicking up the energy level a notch, with Burke's vocal very reminiscent of one Otis Redding. When Burke sings "Cr-cr-cr-cr-cr-cry," you could just hear him do "Try a Little Tenderness." The encore features more medley and preaching woven into the sizzling performance, Burke's voice is a little gruff but it's oh so soulful. After about a half dozen songs, the encore concludes with a flourish as Burke medleys the Sam Cooke classic "Having a Party" with the gospel classic "Amen" sounding for all the world like Cooke himself.

Although the CD booklet contains a hefty excerpt from Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music profiling Burke and providing a nice context for the music, there are no reissue production credits. Based on the track times and sequencing, this would appear to be a straight reissue of the 1984 album on CD. With a total time of 82:21, this two-disc set clocks in at only about two-and-a-half minutes longer than the capacity of a single CD. Burke is introduced for the encore a mere 20 minutes into the second set, giving a strong indication that there was more show than would have fit on the vinyl double album as originally released. With a performance this dynamic, it's somewhat disappointing that Rounder didn't go back to the original tapes and do an expanded reissue to include both sets in their entirety.

Although not widely known outside the R&B charts, Solomon Burke's influence on other musicians over the years has been huge; Bruce Springsteen (especially his '70s era) and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes are two who spring immediately to mind. Any fan of soul, blues, gospel or R&B should make it a point to pick up Soul Alive! It's the next best thing to actually seeing Solomon Burke in a small club; listening to this disc you will feel like you are there. Rounder Records puts forth the proposition that "this two-record set has come to be regarded as one of the two or three greatest live recordings of soul music ever." An overstatement perhaps, but I'd be hard pressed to disagree.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 23 August 2003

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