Championing Cooke

Songs & Times of Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come (Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

January 31 – February 2

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“Songs & Times of Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come” begins appropriately with its titular social activist song, emerging from the show’s ethereal introductory musical sounds. It is an anthemic tease as to the legacy of influential US songwriter Sam Cooke, which the show is celebrating. Unfortunately, on its opening night at Brisbane Powerhouse, microphone issues meant that it was not the smoothest of starts, as Melbourne-based performer Gary Pinto was confined to stillness behind a standing mic, however, once the hand-held mic was sorted before song-end, it allowed the audience to witness his astounding leap into transformation to move and groove about the stage as the show’s musical repertoire requires.

It does not take long for any audience members initially unfamiliar with the detail of the US songwriter’s influence to appreciate its extent. Instantly recognisable gospel hits and soul classics establish the concert event as a wonderful experience, with Act One highlights including the sweet sway of ‘Only Sixteeen’ and surprising simplicity of ‘Wonderful World’. However, the Act One highlight has to be the clap-along celebration of ‘Jesus Gave Me Water’ by the gospel quartet The Soul Stirrers, that Cooke joined at just 19. Things slow down for some ballads, like Pinto’s own wedding waltz, ‘All of My Love’, which he glides through with effortless style, continuing iafter intermission with a melancholic ‘Sad Mood’…. but not before we are ‘Having a Party’ ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’ because ‘Everyone likes to Cha Cha Cha’.

The ARIA Award-winning Pinto (formerly of Australian R&B band CDB) is an energetic and emotive performer, soulful and joyous and also entirely charismatic in that way that makes a show fly by in what seems like the shortest of times. He not only captures Cooke’s smooth vocals in share of soulful lyrics, but recreates the spirit and style of the entertainer. Pinto is also a generous performer who encourages celebration of the shared musicianship on stage as much as Cooke’s songs, with all members of the live six-piece band and horn section led by music director and drummer Kyrie Anderson, The Fabulous Champions of Soul, being given individual opportunities to shine on multiple appreciated occasions. It is this combination that enlivens the concert’s celebration of songs by or sung by Cooke, that are so clearly part of the cannon of popular music, if only because of their movie soundtrack appearances (think ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Unchained Melody’ and ‘Try a Little Tenderness’)

While Pinto is always relaxed in his singing, Act Two is particularly high energy, as should perhaps be expected in its celebration of ‘the inventor of soul music’. Cooke penned more than 30 US Top 40 hits, so there is extensive musical repertoire from which to choose its numbers. Primarily, the show is said to be in nod to the spirit of Cooke’s beloved 1963 concert at the Harlem Square Club, as committed Cooke fans will perhaps recognise. For those who don’t however, discussion of this in the between-song dialogue could only have enhanced the experience. Indeed, this is the one area in which the show appears to be a little lacking. I would love to have heard more anecdotes in exploration and illumination of Cooke’s life and music, as one of the most important figures in the history of popular music, like in Queenie van de Zandt’s “Blue: The Songs of Joni Mitchell”.

“Songs & Times of Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come” may be a show with a mouthful of a title, but it is one that is well worth devouring. It a sophisticated and stylish reminder of not only the genius of Sam Cooke, but the continued influence and appeal of his music and we should be thankful for Pinto’s genuine championing of Cooke’s genius. And the aesthetic created by the lushly-lit bare brick backdrop of the Powerhouse Theatre only enhances the atmosphere and sense that you are experiencing a show of sheer quality, deserving of its adored standing ovation.

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