Friday, February 03, 2023 | Rajab 11, 1444 H
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The slick, enchanting rhythm of the First Lady of Soul



Dee Dee Bridgewater and her band, “Memphis Soulphony”, travelled all the way to Oman for a one-off concert at the Royal Opera House Muscat, their first — and we hope not their last — visit to the Gulf.

The presentation of their show on Sunday night was American-slick, professional and perfectly timed. Dee Dee has a voice that is full of strength, passion, warmth and incredible technique, and for a singer who has been performing on the world stage for over four decades she has lost nothing of the freshness and spontaneity which new audiences feel blessed to experience.

Each song was introduced with just enough information to explain the context and relevance to her life, without becoming an autobiography or distraction from the music. Preambles were spoken over a riff in the rhythm section, set up by Musical Director extraordinaire and drummer of the band, James Sexton, before launching into a ballad from the 60s in a Bridgewater interpretation.

The programme was primarily Blues and R&B based, and Dee Dee’s voice remained beguiling for the 90-minute set, showing no sign of tiredness as she took us on a tour of the musical life of Tennessee.

We learnt of her influences as she grew up, the daughter of trumpet player Matthew Garrett, and listening to WDIA local radio station, the secrets it revealed to a teenager discovering a compelling world of black musical styles like Blues, R&B and Soul. Her father spun vinyl as the live DJ on WDIA as “Matt, the Platter Cat”.

The show on Sunday started with an authoritative voice-over welcoming the band to the stage for a Blues instrumental intro.

There was no doubt about the calibre of the hand-picked musicians who accompany the singer.

A triangle of keyboards immediately caught my eye, with a vintage Fender Rhodes (sourced locally here in Muscat, rumour has it), a Nord organ with that iconic Hammond Organ sound from the jazz era and a Yamaha keyboard which stacked around the man in the driving seat, ace-pianist, Farindell “Dell” Smith, who carried the show with his non-stop innovation.

And then She entered, dressed in black, from the left — on crutches. Seated centre stage, the great Dee Dee Bridgewater greeted the audience in so gracious and unassuming a manner it was hard to believe; she thanked us for coming, and ‘taking the time’!

This was a modest First Lady of Blues in front of us, and she launched into the Staple Sister’s early hit, “Why? Am I treated so bad” with so much emotion she carried the mood from the depth of her soul. It set the tone for the evening, and we never looked back.

Her control and command of the vocal line was unquestionable; improvising, bemoaning her lot and reaching to the hearts of all in the hall. She continued with “I’m going down Slow” by the now forgotten Bobby Blue Band”, and her interpretation of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1970s hit, “Giving Up”, placed her voice exactly in her signature style. She has brought back the Soul sounds of the 60s and 70s to a new generation.

The programme was exclusively numbers from her just-recorded new album, “Memphis”, which ‘offers ground-breaking reimagining of American Blues and R&B classics’.

This goes some way to explain why she and the band were reading from charts, not having committed the repertoire to memory yet.

The show moved seamlessly from such old favourites as Elvis Presley’s “Don’t be Cruel”, Al Green’s “Can’t get next to you” to Otis Redding’s “Try a little Tenderness”, sung in such a mellow tone that we were transported back to the Tennessee of 40 years ago.

The “Memphis Soulphony” — which sums up the raison d’etre of the group — was a six-piece line-up with Barry Campbell on dexterous bass lines and riffs, Arthur Edmaiston giving some stylistic tenor sax interjections and Marc Franklin contributing superb trumpet solos.

Behind Lady Day herself were two young backing singers from Memphis, sisters Shontelle and Sharisse Norman, who were given a chance to sing a solo Blues verse each in the limelight — and what beautiful singers they are in their own right.

The concert drew to a close too quickly, and after standing ovations they performed a tribute to the Late Prince, which we were invited to join in with, “Purple Rain”. Lead guitarist and Dee Dee’s right hand man throughout, Charlton Johnson, had the opportunity to shine again in some way-out guitar solos, stealing the hearts of aficionados, and the show ended on a euphotic high.

Did I mention that Dee Dee Bridgewater had fractured her right leg in a fall in Indonesia and performed the entire show sitting down? — except for the last number, when she got so carried away she stood to sing, on one leg! I can only imagine the energy she would emit on stage with two good legs, and hope very much that she comes back when she is better.

For Dee Dee Bridgewater was enchanted by Oman and would love to return one day.

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