During a recent trip to Memphis I skipped an opportunity to go to the Stax Museum. Instead, I opted for a third trip to Sun Records. I’ll admit to being more enamored with rock n roll/blues than classic soul. But I won’t make that mistake again. Thankfully, Stax icon William Bell hit the Dakota last night for a pair of shows. Nights out are seldom this good.
Let’s once again state for the record that The Dakota is one of the most important live music resources in the Twin Cities. The acts that the club books are consistently world class. The dining is world class. Admittedly, The Dakota is not a cheap night on the town. By the same token, if a date night is on the agenda, the place is hard to beat. All you need to do is figure out the genre that appeals to you, look for it on their calendar and go. You will never be disappointed.
Plus, the venue fills a very important niche around here. It caters to an older crowd; patrons that will probably never set foot in the Mainroom, Palace or Armory. There’s nothing wrong with that. People who are willing to shell out top dollar to see legends and virtuoso players can be every bit as passionate as those younger folks stuffed in an Entry mosh pit. They simply prefer a comfortable chair and great sight lines to somebody else’s sweat.
I began by saying I was more a rock and blues aficionado. Certainly, I was familiar with the iconic Stax label. Anybody who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s would have been hiding under a rock not to be. Booker T, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, The Staples Singers. Who can’t sing those tunes? But I’ll confess I didn’t relate the name William Bell to any of the hits rattling around in my memory. Bell and his band The Complete Package quickly remedied that oversight.
At 7pm on the dot his 9 piece band took to the stage. In that classic move befitting a star, the band’s two back up singers showed they could hold the house down all on their own with their version of Uptown Funk. As the song wrapped, the band immediately dropped into the Otis Redding classic I Can’t Turn You Loose and brought Bell to the stage. For a cat who is pushing 80, the man seemed to have discovered the Fountain of Youth. Dapper dressed in signature fedora and shades, he moved directly into his Stax catalog with the 1962 classic Any Other Way.
That early gem was followed with his 1967 hit Everybody Loves A Winner. He introduced the song as one that taught him about early life lessons. After signing with Stax and becoming their lead artist in the early 60’s, he was drafted and went to war. When he returned to his career, many of his so called friends had no time for him. It was only when he released his first full length LP, Soul of a Bell, that the sycophants returned.
The night was a walk down the musical memory of my mind. As a kid growing up in a lily white Illinois farm town, with AM juggernaut WLS burning batteries in the transistor radio hanging from my handlebars, my generation received a steady diet of Soul, R&B and MoTown mixed with our Beatles and Stones. When Bell sang, I was transported back and heard him crooning from that radio. Songs like his duet with Judy Clay, Private Number. Or his first hit that put Stax on the map, You Don’t Miss Your Water (Til The Well Runs Dry). By the time I got to that one, it was being covered by The Byrds.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the evening, certainly the one that shell shocked me, came when he introduced a song he’d written for his good friend Albert King. The song that became the trademark of the giant with the Flying V. Born Under A Bad Sign. Few songs in the blues cannon have been as covered and recorded as that one. In addition to King, it was a huge hit for Eric Clapton as well as becoming live staples for the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix. What kid who learns to play blues guitar isn’t schooled with Bad Sign?
The evening drove toward a close with his Booker T collaboration and Grammy winner Tryin’ To Love Two which morphed into the Ben E. King classic Stand By Me. Despite people waiting outside for the second show, the 7pm crowd wasn’t about to let him go. The band returned to the stage with their upbeat rendition of Otis Redding’s Hard To Handle.
Walking back out into the cold at 8:30pm, with a happy belly and a Saturday night still in front of me, I smiled. It’s good to live in the best music city in the land. I look forward to the next time I’ll be heading to a show at The Dakota. There are few things better than seeing legendary artists who have managed to evolve and remain vibrant. Bell is that kind of guy. The Dakota is the place to see them.