Ray Charles Illuminates The Night

Concert review Ray Charles at Chateau Ste Michelle, Woodinville, last night.

As is customary, the 17-strong Ray Charles band warmed up the Chateau Ste. Michelle crowd with some familiar instrumental jazz tunes. Obviously just off a bus that has been a home from home for this summer-long tour, this traditional big band looked crumpled and affably jaded.

It even took a couple of songs before the band finally hit a groove with a wearily tender, alto sax led, "Shadow of Your Smile."

Didn't waste time

To the ending strains of that "swing-culture" classic, Charles was introduced, his slight frame dressed in purple and his hair a shock of white, within seconds this seemingly frail figure was letting rip with some jiving R&B.

Charles is certainly no lounge crooner, his great blues voice - Can you say his name in a sentence without the word soul in it? - rang out a spirited "Busted," a song about being flat broke.

Spirited number

By the way, Charles' every muscle and bone twitched along in perfect sync, it was obviously a story he remembered only too well. Typically, Charles put his sparkle and playful spirit into that wonderful blues number; "Busted," but definitely not out.

His voice: that voice; the ache, the moan, the growl. Low, sweet and tender, it expanded words beyond the sum of their letters.

It is a voice that has influenced so many latter-day singers, from Sly Stone to Stevie Wonder. Charles' '60s hit song, "Georgia On My Mind" was a swirl of glassy horns; a swish of plaintive baritone sax; with Charles gentle, gritty voice singing words, so wretched and acquiescent.

No matter how many times you hear it, it remains completely arresting. By the end, you just know that song ain't about stones and cement.

When it came to the encore, Charles brought on the Rayettes, an all-gal quintet that provided the tightest, smartest harmonies for "I Can't Stop Loving You" and icy fresh, tambourine twirls and rich, full gospel backing vocals in "Everything's Alright."

Captivating performance

After hearing "I Can't Stop Loving You," any glowing amount of adjectives about the power of Charles' voice and his captivating performance is not hyperbole, it is understatement.

The autumn chill was in the air and, for the first time this year, the Chateau's lawn was in darkness. Within a week, Charles will celebrate his 66th birthday and whatever illumination he found when he was struck blind in his childhood, he shared once more.