An evening full of special moments

December 8, 2002



There's a wonderful moment of sheer joy and pure attitude in many of Ray Charles' best songs.

This is by no means to slight the musical genius that dominates the bulk of the tune--the rollicking piano or the soulful vocals--but it is in the seemingly parenthetical aside where the full, devilishly playful life force of this American treasure is best glimpsed.

It was on display several times over the course of a short but sweet 80-minute set at the (sadly half-empty) UIC Pavilion on Friday night.

It came at the end of one of Charles' best-known standards, a song that the 72-year-old singer must have performed thousands of times since his career first took flight in the mid-'60s, but which he invested with as much passion as if he'd just discovered it and made it his own.

"Georgia...' ...mind," the shades-sporting legend crooned in the final verse of the last chorus, dramatically and seductively drawing out each syllable. Then came that million-watt grin and the unforgettable toss-off.

"Ain't she!" he cracked.

It was there, too, in "It Ain't Easy Being Green," a song first immortalized by another great American talent, Kermit the Frog, with whom Charles dueted. In Ray's hands, this children's anthem of pride in one's individuality became something much deeper and more powerful--a comment on race and acceptance.

This time, he didn't even have to say anything to make his extra added point.

"I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold," he sang.

Then came that smile again. "Or something much more colorful like that."

His meaning was crystal-clear, and the appreciative crowd roared its approval.

Finally, that special moment could be felt in a bravura rendition of "All I Ever Need Is You," one of Charles' wonderful rollicking country blues. Over the course of the tune, he treated us to a spirited sax solo, as well as his trademark vocals and piano. As the song kicked into high gear for one last chorus, the performer just couldn't hold back.

"Oh, sock it to me, now!" he roared.

You go, Ray!

As usual, Charles was accompanied by his friend and musical director for the last decade-plus, Victor Vanacore, who conducted the 40-piece orchestra of local musicians that backed the star.

While no one will deny Charles his status as a groundbreaking artist in soul, R&B, country, and early rock 'n' roll, the Hall of Famer has had a spotty reputation as a live performer in recent years. And the set list at this show was nearly identical to countless others that he has played across the country for quite some time now.

But whether he was inspired by the high caliber of Chicago's symphonic players, was revved on by the especially adoring crowd, or was simply having a very good night, he gave his all to our town, with his vocals sounding surprisingly robust (if not quite what they were in his prime), despite the occasional brief coughing jag.

The crowd was on its feet by the penultimate tune, his much-lauded rendition of "America the Beautiful." And Charles brought it all home with the set-closer, another of his great honky-tonk numbers.

Turning from the piano to the Korg synthesizer, the star evoked a pedal steel guitar as he sang the praises of "enchiladas, old El Dorados...women and wine" in "Making Love in 3/4 Time"--the perfect ending to a rewarding evening with a musical legend.