Ben E. King/Average White Band: Hammersmith Odeon, London

THIS ISN’T an original thought but it bears repeating: Ben E. King is an excellent singer, and highly individual with it – unmistakeable in a blindfold test – who’s just that bit short of greatness that he needs expert guidance and accompaniment to bring out his best; AWB is a talented sextet who are just that bit lacking in originality, versatility, personality and – most important – vocal agility, and they really need help from outside writers and a charismatic frontman if they’re going to stamp their name in the ledgers of music history.

So when the former fronted the latter the result was a memorable experience. Unfortunately, the combination was only put to public test for two songs in about 2 1/2 hours of Musical entertainment, excluding encore(s). A sorry waste of potential. I exclude the encore(s) because by the end of the main part of the show I couldn’t take any more of the full-throttle vamping that was smashing about the heads of everyone in the auditorium. Half-hearing the final 30 minutes of the same from the refuge of the theatre’s foyer I was convinced that AWB & Ben were attempting two James Brown numbers – ‘Hot (I Need To Loved)’ and ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’. When hardlier friends finally emerged from the fetid interior I was told that, in fact, they’d been subjected to an interminable, self-indulgent version of ‘T.L.C.’, a track on AWB’s first album.

There’s a moral there somewhere but I haven’t got the stamina to examine it.

As for the rest of the show, events proceeded thus: Ben opened with a set of his own hits (plus a couple of unnecessary extras, like The Jacksons’ ‘Show Me The Way To Go’) which was severely mutilated by the wayward hacking of his pick-up band. I don’t know who they were, and I’m fully prepared to believe that they’re dynamite on their own turf, but as back up musicians for Ben E. King they rated Z-minus. From ‘Spanish Harlem’ (1961) to ‘Supernatural Thing’ (1975), they displayed an inordinate lack of empathy and concern for their employer. Ben sounded fine of course, when it was possible to hear him and concentrate on what he was singing amid the confused bashing going on.

After a 30-minute break, AWB appeared without much ceremony and sensibly slammed straight into ‘Pick Up The Pieces’. Handled very much the same as on record. Malcolm Duncan’s sax break was sloppy but the rest of the band, augmented by crazy conga slapper Sammy Figueroa, was super solid; all seemed set for a high ole party.

The majority did get their kicks, but me, I was disappointed. Like the Bonzos’ infamous ‘Into And Outro’, the show was nearly all promise ‘n’ anti-climax with very little actual meat in the sandwich. The root cause of their problem was highlighted in the pre-encore finale, a rather leaden version of ‘Cut The Cake’ in which each man took a slice. Only Figuero and drummer Steve Ferrone coped efficiently with their portions, the others offering little more than crumbs off the table. As for the vocals, both Stuart and Gorrie are a cut above the great white wilderness (Gorrie being the more acceptable of the two) but they’re still no match for any average black singer. Juxtaposed with Ben E. King they seemed even less capable.

AWB’s finest moment came early on with a magnificent performance of ‘A Love Of Your own’ from their Soul Searching album. Apart from that it was left to Ben to salvage the evening when he joined the band for two tracks off their new album — the relentless sex-machine pulse of ‘Get It Up For Love’ and Philip Mitchell’s great street anthem ‘A Star In The Ghetto’. Alas, he then walked off again, and it was back to the mundane with Hamish leading that over-rated opus ‘If I Ever Lose This Heaven’. Elsewhere in the set AWB performed ‘Person To Person’, ‘Got The Love’, ‘Queen Of My Soul’ and ‘I’m The One’, all of which were proficient and loud but hardly exciting.

Look, let’s get this in proportion. I know I’m being over-critical when in fact the concert was a great success. And I must say I’d sooner watch AWB than 90% of the acts that are regularly featured in these pages. It’s just that I’d hoped for something more inspired from a band that’s gained a reputation as one of the best rock / soul outfits of our age.

It turns out that they’re just a damn good backing group.

© Cliff WhiteNew Musical Express, 30 July 1977

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