Bobby "Blue" Bland

at Willie's 537 Club

By Allen Howie

For nearly forty years, crooner Bobby "Blue" Bland has been making exquisite rhythm & blues records, dominating the soul charts in his heyday and putting four singles onto the pop charts in the mid-'60s. His gift is to find extraordinary moments in the most ordinary of settings, to extract dignity from heartache. His versions of numbers like "I Pity the Fool," "Lead Me On" and "Farther Up the Road" have become not just standards, but the yardstick by which other artists' renditions are judged.

Bland was in fine form at Willie's 537 Club on December 3, captivating a packed house from the opening lines of his first song. The singer worked the crowd like a minister preaching to the converted and for its part the audience swooned and swayed, testifying to the power of the music. When, during the slow blues of his opening number, he sang "Are you married?" few of the ladies in the house seemed willing to admit it; one woman at a nearby table exclaimed, "Not tonight!"

And for the most part, all the adulation was well deserved. Bland's voice was in fine shape, weaving a hypnotic spell through sweet soul ballads, delta blues and deep Memphis grooves. Whether performing his own hits like "Ain't Nothin' You Can Do" or claiming classics like the Bill Withers chestnut "Ain't No Sunshine," he sang with an easy authority, a fluid grace that has become his hallmark.

The Bobby Bland Orchestra deserves much of the credit. With a four-piece horn section, guitar, bass and drums, the band turned in a sterling performance, playing with feeling and precision, relaxed but never sloppy. On several tunes, the singer left room for band members to strut their stuff, treating the audience to some tasty, fluid guitar work, popping bass lines and sweet horn solos. But the focus was clearly on the Man and he carried the show through the simple power of his voice and an undeniable charisma. It would have been wonderful if the show had been twice as long, but that's nit-picking; Bland and his band delivered seventy minutes of soulful music and gave everyone their money's worth.

Two acts opened for Bland. Formula gave the audience several soulful, jazzy numbers, including a nice take on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" followed by an all-too-brief set from bluesman Herman Anderson of Derby City Blues Review.