Not many singers in a nightclub would dare to start a show with a slow, mournful chant, sung a cappella. Joe Williams can get away with it, as he revealed Tuesday at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood. He has this special power because any Joe Williams audience is a gathering of faithful admirers who, before he has taken the first breath, are in the palm of his mighty hand.
From the opening “Let My People Go” he segued into a haunting, 6/8 reading of “Down by the Riverside,” backed now by his perennial and uniquely cohesive rhythm section.
Even when he moves into the more conventional repertoire, something original and spontaneous invariably happens: The trading of scat verses against Gerryck King’s drums on “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” the bossa nova update of “After You’ve Gone,” the song that happens to be exactly the same age as the singer (70); the superb backing and filling and soloing by pianist Norman Simmons, the supple bass work of Bob Badgley.
Most remarkable of all was the guitarist Henry Johnson, whose work ranged from gentle chording behind Williams on “How Deep Is the Ocean” to fierce, beyond-George Benson wailing on the closing blues conglomeration.
Williams the nonpareil ballad singer was in evidence for a gentle “Embraceable You” and an “I Got It Bad” that never overstepped the mark from drama into melodrama. “Joey Joey” was a surprise entry, in honor of Bill Henderson, who was in the house, and who had sung it decades ago with Williams in the audience.
There was only one missing element in Tuesday’s first set. The two blues numbers, “Who She Do” and “Cherry Red,” were both heavily interlarded with comedy, all of it high spirited and raunchy fun, but leaving you wishing that he had included “The Comeback” or “In the Evening” to show a darker side of the blues that he interprets with such majesty. No doubt they will be there too, some time before the closing show Sunday.