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Feb 27, 05 11:08 AM

I'm Gonna Send You Back to Arkansas.

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I saw Ray last night.

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I wanted to see a least one movie other than Sideways before the Oscars. Being that the flick's already out on DVD, there's only one theater in Manhattan still playing it; the one in the sub-sub-basement of the Virgin Megastore in Times Square. How surreal, to exit from the hushed cavern of a movie theater into the bustle of shoppers, and then the bright lights and noise of Times Square.

There was a lot of stuff I liked about the movie. The old records, of course. The raw data of the biography stuff. Lip-synching puts me off in general; being a recovering addict, I always become unnecessarily consumed with the minutiae of the portrayal of addiction.

(Late at night, channel-surfing, I'm always looking for drug tales. My friend Wayne says, "Joe Montana's retired, but what do you think is on his mind every day?")

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Pat Dillett, who produced Rockity Roll and "Move On," took me to see Ray Charles a couple years ago. His wife works at the Natural History Museum; Ray Charles was playing a brief set at a benefit.

I was never a devotée of Ray's--I went out of curiosity--but the show was an amazing lesson in mastery. We sat in the second row. A trio of tuxedoed musicians took the stage and vamped cheesily (the guitar player applied the chorus pedal liberally). There was a corny Roland keyboard sitting on the stage. Pat and I looked at each other: Ray Charles couldn't possibly be playing that thing--? Where did he get these clowns, from a wedding band?

Ray was led out by a hypeman, who intoned, in a burly but bored voice, "You are about to be entertained! By the GENIUS! Ray Charles!" Ray sat at the keyboard and tickled a note or two.

Pat and I were horrified; it was instantly recognizable as one of the corniest boilerplate keyboard sounds in existence. And then: astonishingly, he rocked it. I mean he rocked the hell out of this insanely corny tone. Just supremely, effortlessly musical. Sheer mastery.

The next tone he dialed up was even cornier; a bell-like tone that was just disheartening to hear. And then, once again, he played with such emotion that the corny tone became transparent, and we could only hear the smooth undulation of the stream-of-consciousness lead.

It was an environment of forced reverence; this was before the nouveau wave of Ray-genuflection; the audience seemed to be motivated mostly charitable participation, and responded to tunes with obedient applause. Ray played a hasty, 45-minute set that he seemed to just dash off without much commitment of thought or passion.

Nonetheless. The guy apparently couldn't help but to flash his brilliance. He played hits, but he seemed to have become tired of them, and many were reduced to near-abstraction. "Georgia" began with a meandering jam; the vocal didn't enter 'til two minutes into the song, on "...the whole day through..." and in the course of the tune he never once uttered the word "Georgia" itself!

In the second to last tune he held his wristwatch up to his ear; a cute gesture, until it occurred to me that he's blind, and he must have a watch that speaks the time aloud! The hypeman came out again, and Ray took his arm and departed with little concern. "You! Have just been entertained! By the genius! Ray Charles!"

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Posted by Mike at February 27, 2005 11:08 AM