Ray Charles doesn't work long, and he certainly doesn't work cheap, but his work was something close to perfection Thursday night at the Coach House.
Charles, who will turn 60 next month, was in startlingly good voice throughout his early show, the first of four sold-out performances in a two-night stand (that's about 1,500 tickets sold at $39.50 a shot, the bulk of which probably goes to Charles for the sort of payday that can really make a guy look like a genius).
As usual, Charles' set clocked in at a precise and punctual 55 minutes, including a five-minute warm-up blow by his 16-man band. But if the overall framework of a Charles show is strictly bounded, the 11 songs he inserted within it Thursday were the essence of musical freedom and unchained spontaneity.
Charles' range of moods, styles and textures turned those 50 minutes into a cornucopia, with his voice giving full embodiment to the concept "horn of plenty." He rang true with cottony, deep-grained intonations to create a cloistered intimacy during ballads, or he blasted forth with piercing falsetto cries that served as exclamation points for more exuberant soul workouts. He consistently held and shaped sustained notes more firmly than you'd think possible for a graying icon.
An unbalanced sound mix left things a bit unfocused at the start, and an abbreviated, if frisky, "Busted" was cause for some slight concern early on, especially when Charles swung immediately into "Georgia On My Mind." But the loving, unpredictable rendition he gave that chestnut erased any fear that this was going to be a short hour of casually tossed-off hits. For the rest of the show, Charles made every moment seem uncharted and full of invention--whether on an achingly lovely ballad like "She Knows," a driving soul shot featuring the five Raelettes doing a strong impression of Aretha and the Sweet Inspirations, or a friendly, gospel-ized Charles takeover of a standard like "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."
The show would have been a delight if Charles had played it with his hands tied behind his back. The fact that he frolicked just as freely with his fingers doubled the delight. No purist, Charles has discovered digital technology with a vengeance. He made liberal use of the electronic keyboard colorations at his disposal, changing timbres, bending notes, making his piano sound like a distorted blues guitar or a ringing vibraphone or even a synthesized bass--and doing it all in a way that was light, playful and fully in sync with his orchestra.
Charles' band had a marvelous set too. It's hard to imagine a horn section--13 members strong--playing with a better blend of magnificent clout and sensitive control than Charles' crew. Typically, Charles uses his Orange County club dates at the Coach House or the Crazy Horse Steak House to get the kinks out of his ensemble before a major tour, and he isn't loath to chastise players for their imperfections right on the bandstand. This time, there was nothing for him to do but whoop with delight at the sound around him and holler yet another "Oh, yeah." The same went for a crowd that made a good investment, even at premium prices.