Fat Possum Records, 80358
label website

One of my favorite audio haunts in Toronto is Applause - and not for the obvious reasons. While Rob Doughty offers many interesting products, what most attracts me to his establishment is the potential excitement of discovery - of a new recording which to add to my ever-increasing music collection. In Rob's store, the music never stops. His credo, "the music comes first", is obvious to all. While perusing his fine offerings of new vinyl, Rob noticed that I was taking an interest in a new Solomon Burke recording. He offered to play it for me via Emotive Audio tube monoblocks, JPS Labs signal cables, and a pair of curious looking Vince Christian Ltd. loudspeakers. Not a system you're likely to sample recordings with at your local HMV!

I briefly checked out several tracks and knew quickly that this recording would soon find its way atop my heavy rotation pile. Unfortunately, I had already blown my entertainment allowance. I left Applause depressed and dejected. Of course I then did what any self-respecting music lover would do: Stop at HMV on the way home to pick up a copy. Now I wish I'd bought the vinyl at Rob's. It probably sounds better. That's not to say there's anything wrong with the CD. It's just that vinyl in general has a more open, relaxed and natural feel about it.

In case you've been living under a mossy rock for these last forty years, Los Angelite Solomon Burke is a soul legend known affectionately as The Bishop, or more poignantly, The Exiled King of Rock & Soul. He has a groundshakingly awesome set of pipes and a powerful legacy of celebrated 1960s albums on Atlantic Records. So I'm not talking diluted swill that passes for Soul these days. Nope, this is the music in the vein of Otis Redding, Al Green and James Brown. Burke's hits have been covered by the likes of The Stones and Redding. In his 40-year career, Solomon has sold over 17 Millions records and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. Today's album won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2003.

Don't Give Up On Me was produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry in a 4-day live-in-the-studio session, then mastered by legend Doug Sax. It sports a minimalist backup group consisting of guitar, bass, drums, piano and organ. Notable guest musicians include The Blind Boys of Alabama who provide stunning texture to the poignant "None of Us Are Free", tenor saxophonist Bernie Wallace and Daniel Lanois who adds his characteristic swamp guitar sound to "Stepchild". Now check out these names: Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, Joe Henry and Nick Lowe. They're all fans of Burke and here contributed previously unreleased original tunes either custom tailored to, or already perfectly suited for, Burke's genius. (Tellingly, both Morrison songs wound up on the Van man's own latest album). With endorsements like that, you'll appreciate how the music community reveres this underrated artist.

Plainly put, this is a stunner of an album. It's been on incessant play ever since I bought it. Every song's a miniature gem of passionate soul music, no weak fillers in sight. It has a big fat warm sound that wraps itself around the listener. Burke's powerful, expressive pipes are captured in all their raw glory, on the title track with
a plaintive, almost begging quality as though suggesting that Solomon was directing his plea to us as the audience rather than a faraway lover.

On Tom Waits wistful "Diamond in Your Mind", you'd swear that the spirit of Waits himself was channeled, such is the sheer power of Burke's treatment, never mind his similarly deep, raspy voice and melodic pacing. This tune would not be out of place on albums such as Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones. My favorite track, Brian Wilson's "Soul Searchin", benfits from a terrific broken-hearted treatment while the band provides a bouncy accompaniment in typical Wilson fashion. The socially conscious "None of Us Are Free" is given a wonderfully emotive backing by the gospel ensemble of The Blind Boys of Alabama such that you won't want it to stop.

I should point out that Don't Give Up On Me isn't quite the fiery Soul of Otis Reddings 'Otis Sings Soul [Atco 80318] or The Exciting Wilson Pickett [Rhino CD 71276] or even the Best of Solomon Burke [Atlantic SD 8109-2]. This is the music of an older wiser man, arranged and played in a more stripped down, sparse, intimate style - no wailing horn sections here. Surprisingly, Burke's voice really hasn't changed that much over the last forty years. The essential character and gravitas are fully intact. Simply stir in a hearty dose of weathered maturity and presto. Don't give up on Solomon Burke. You haven't heard nuttin' yet.

Now why aren't the big labels making records like this? If they were, they wouldn't be fighting the current sales decline. Thanks to Fat Possum Records for this jewel. More please. Really - track this disc down. You won't be disappointed. Guaranteed.