This isn’t the first time Bobby Womack has been given a helping hand by British worshippers. In 1994 the soul singer emerged from drug addiction with the album Resurrection, which featured a guest appearance from Rod Stewart and was released on Ronnie Wood’s record label.
Now he’s back with The Bravest Man in the Universe, made with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and Richard Russell, head of the indie label XL Recordings. Both joined him for Tuesday’s show, Albarn playing mournful piano melodies and Russell producing stark electronic beats. Womack, helped to his chair, sat centre stage, flanked by a drummer and bass player.
The singer, 68, has recently finished treatment for cancer, diagnosed as he finished recording The Bravest Man in the Universe. It was a sadly characteristic piece of misfortune. His career dates back to his Cleveland, Ohio childhood singing gospel in a band with his brothers, but it has been dogged by tragic events, such as the murder of his mentor Sam Cooke in 1964 and the death of a baby son in 1976.
He opened the show with “Deep River”, a song “going back to my gospel days”, performed alone by Womack on acoustic guitar. There were cheers as he held notes like a believer seeking grace: “My home is ohhhh-ver Jordan.” His vocals have grown a bit ragged but they remain alive with feeling, from sweet crooning to convulsive yowls.
Other songs from the new album worked less well. Rumbling beats and bass placed him in a stark contemporary setting, swapping soul’s religious hopefulness for a bereft secular modern blues: the effect was too skeletal. Meanwhile Albarn, who first hooked up with Womack on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, tried to jolly things along with an ostentatious display of admiration, exhorting the audience to clap along and interrupting Womack at one point to tell him he loved him. It was the opposite of the love that dare not speak its name.
After an interval Womack returned with his usual band, an eight-piece plus three female backing singers. The remainder of the set was a tribute to his remarkable singing and songwriting skills, from the funky social comment of 1973’s “Across 110th Street” to the rock ’n’ soul of “It’s all Over Now”, which the Rolling Stones covered for their first number one hit in 1964. Womack tired as the evening progressed, but never gave up. His response to a shouted request for a song was indomitable old-school soul: “I’ll give you all I got.”