Hello, Mr. Soul
American treasure Ray Charles mesmerizes at Gold Country Casino
If you ever have the chance to witness Ray Charles live and to hear the vocals wrenched from blindness and the beating of his heart to music—say, during the closure of “Georgia, on My Mind” as he whispers almost to himself a declarative, “Ain’t she,” while weathered fingers tickle the last piano notes—don’t miss it.
Twentieth-century music produced a select number of expressive voices that could be classified as unmistakably transcendent of the time. I’m thinking of the likes of Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Lennon, Holiday, and yes, Mr. Ray Charles himself, the “genius of soul,” who made a rare appearance in the North State for a 75-minute set of classics at the Gold Country Casino in Oroville. The casino announcer reminded us beforehand this was a man who had “played for presidents, kings and queens,” and now was playing for the good people of Oroville and surrounding area.
There was about a thousand good people in the small casino auditorium, with not a bad seat in the house. Charles was accompanied tonight by a core rhythm section of bass, guitar and drums. In addition, his friend of 12 years, Victor Vanacore conducted a 40-piece orchestra of semi-local musicians (including a horn section), mostly culled from the defunct Sacramento Orchestra.
After a bouncy orchestral jazz intro, the crowd erupted when Charles emerged from behind the curtains, taking small steps as he was led onstage wearing a mirror-laden dinner jacket with trademark silk shirt, bow tie and shades. Deposited by his aide at the large piano center stage (next to a separate Korg keyboard), Charles immediately jumped in tune with the musicians and felt out the dynamics, asking that the piano volume be turned down. Two wide screens on either side of the stage allowed us a closer look at the white-haired old man with the salty grin who, though turning 71 on Sept. 23, still had the unmistakable power inside —particularly on the slower tunes when his vocals were allowed to shine.
Scattered laughs arose during the first ballad, “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” the light-hearted duet (a populist version of “Black and Proud” maybe) Charles once sang with children’s hero Kermit the Frog. It was obvious the man could invest anything from a car jingle to a dirge with the emotional power of a wailing wall.
He continued briskly through the set in a no-nonsense style, rarely speaking to the audience, alternating jazzier, up-tempo numbers (which showcased the cast of musicians and fine chart arrangements) with his own heartfelt ballads, bringing tears to the eyes of the crowd. Perhaps because he was in Oroville, Charles drew on his country-flavored repertoire (part of his touring experience as a youth was in country/western bands). Highlights included a cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” the classic state song “Georgia, On My Mind” (perhaps his biggest hit ever), and the funny, honky-tonk closer, “Making Love in 3/4 Time.” While playing the Korg, Charles showed he could still get funky by working the pitch shifter and bending the vibe-flavored chords like a wah pedal (even mimicking a pedal steel sound at times).
But my favorite song was a soul-stirring rendition of the classic “Lucky Ole Sun,” with its spiritual, gospel-tinged vision of mortality and that “lucky ole sun/ got nothing to do/ but roll around heaven all day.” The song felt especially poignant when delivered by a man who has been performing like a workhorse for over 50 years (and who was coughing slightly between lines this night); a blind, black orphan from the South living out all the changes of his life onstage and perhaps longing for the day when his mind might experience a sunset and rest. In a few words, it was deep. Who’s to say that behind the supposed darkness of those shades there isn’t a musical light to rival the sun?
Some may remember Charles’ triumphant performance of “America the Beautiful” before the last Super Bowl (watched by an estimated 150 million people or whatever). This night, his version once again brought out the patriotism of nearly everyone in attendance. Several stood at attention, and shouts of “We love you Ray!” rang out (to which Charles finally quipped, “All right, I heard your speech, ah’right now … let me play my pie-ano."].
The song has become a standing ovation anywhere in Charles’ set, thanks to the soulfulness with which he carries the national tune. On the advice of John Lapado, I listened to the music with eyes closed and something happened. By the end, I was reminded that no matter how much we might hate our government at times, we are still collectively a country full of beauty, grace and hope —as exemplified here in the passionate conviction of Mr. Charles, who cradles and cajoles the nuances of this song as tenderly as he would a child.