The comedian who opened for Ray Charles at the Coach House on Thursday night didn’t have too much reason to be concerned when his routine often foundered during the first show. He knew he had an ace up his warm-up jacket sleeve.
Whenever things got a little rocky, Blue, as the comic is known, simply tapped into a pop culture vein he knew would get a response: “You got the right one, baaabayyyy!” he sang out teasingly to the crowd. And sure enough, back came smiles of recognition and an obliging “Uh-huh!” Blue was instantly on a roll again.
It’s a rather sad commentary that after half a century of making some of the most influential and memorable music of his generation, Ray Charles is now probably most widely recognized for his Diet Pepsi commercials. Thankfully, the ad lyrics did not find their way into the main event (the first of six performances by Charles in a three-night engagement at the Coach House that ends tonight). The “Legendary Genius of Soul” stuck to his own business for the full length of his typically short but shining set.
As many times as Charles has sung “Georgia on My Mind,” the 60-year-old performer somehow manages to do it a little differently every time. The version rendered Thursday was an achingly slow, whispered-vocals bit of passion backed lovingly by a 13-man horn section playing softer than a baby’s crib mobile.
In fact, throughout the evening, the full 17-man band was as tight and crisp-sounding as it was unobtrusive. In sharp contrast to the powerful Roomful of Blues horn section that occupied the same stage the night before (backing Pat Benatar), Charles’ horns mostly settled for low-decibel arrangements with a few brief outbursts at full throttle. Anyone who saw both bands witnessed the full range of magic an army of brass can bring to an evening.
Another achingly rendered ballad, “She Knows,” featured Charles soloing on his electronic keyboard. The song was often almost a moan, drawn so slowly and tenderly from the singer’s lips that at times one wondered if he would reach the next note without collapsing in a heap. It culminated in an emotional falsetto that was as beautiful as it was passionate.
Familiarity may breed contempt in many performers, but it seems that these days Charles likes to stick to what he knows best. This show settled in his preferred neighborhood of an hour’s length and featured about a dozen songs, more than one of which Charles performed during his last visit to the Coach House just a year ago. But when the songs are as meaningful and well-done as those in Charles’ catalogue, why quibble over spontaneity?
Just a few of the chestnuts he pulled out of his bag Thursday were a big-band arrangement of “You Made Me Love You” and a jazz-flavored “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Both were old hat for Charles, though Rodgers and Hammerstein would never recognize this cymbal-heavy, spunky version of “Beautiful Mornin’ ” as the very same that cowboy Curly sang on the plains of “Oklahoma.” And certainly Judy Garland never dreamed of singing “You Made Me Love You” as a peppy little ditty practically devoid of longing.
Charles got some nice background harmonies from his entourage of five female singers, the Raeletts, on another favorite, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And the quintet acted as catalyst for a classic musical exchange with Charles in a play-like pairing of “Guess Who I Saw Today?” and “Hit the Road, Jack.” Charles, acting the wayward husband struggling to explain being seen with another woman, used his engaging, comic talents to their fullest in a routine that was simply priceless.
As usual, “What’d I Say” closed the show. No surprises here either, but the rousing, echo-laden anthem went over just as well as it always does.
Maybe that’s because being with Ray Charles for an hour is like visiting an old friend. Or maybe it’s because this old friend still has enormous talent.
Ray Charles performs tonight at 8:30 and 10:30 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: Sold out. Through Saturday. Information: (714) 496-8930.