Irma Thomas, Thursday night
Regattabar at the Charles Hotel
Friday, Saturday shows 7:30, 10 pm
$30 cash at the door
Irma Thomas, The Soul Queen of New Orleans, hit town tonight for a three-night stand at the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA. Truth be known, I thought this was going to be the first time I’d ever seen her mail in a show. After her six-piece band, The Professionals, revved up, Irma opened with three of her classics, ‘You Can Have My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man,” “Hip Shakin’ Mama,” and “It’s Raining.” Any one of these songs can knock down the house when Miss Irma’s got the fire. The voice was there but was nary a spark behind it.
Can a professional like Thomas have an off night? As it turned out, yes, but not for long. “We’re here because of you, our fans,” she said after the third song. “The way we do this part of the show is you tell me what you want to hear and I’ll sing it.”
Did I mention that Thomas is sixty-five years old and has been recording music since 1966? “I’ve been singing so long I can’t even lie about my age,” she joked and pointed to the fat notebook on the music stand. “If it’s in here, I can sing it and if it’s not I can fake it, at least for a couple of verses,” she said with the throaty chuckle we’d hear often for the rest of the night.
Decked out in a black and white African design off the shoulder dress, she looked positively radiant.
Titles spilled out of the nearly full house like little bottle rockets. “Oh my god, I haven’t sung that song in years,” she said more than once. She wasn’t kidding. She sang a few from memory - totally a cappella while her band stood back and shook their heads in admiring disbelief.
“Cold Rain? You’ve got to be losin’ your mind!” she bantered with the first request, then sang that lovely blues number with gospel tinged piano backing. Maybe it was the gospel lyric “wash me clean while I lay in the sun,” but a little spark had been fanned.
Two songs later the just-about-to-be -inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame Irma Thomas closed her eyes, rocked back and belted out “Never Make The Same Mistake Twice.” The music came from her heart, not her throat. As far as I could tell, the real show started here.
Between songs, titles flew to the stage from every quarter of the room. Irma was keeping tabs. This audience, from ball caps to gray hair, was in the mood for blues. By the time she got to “Tears from A Smoke Filled Room,” the real Irma Thomas had arrived.
Even the band couldn’t remember the chart for “Overrated” which Thomas bravely sang a cappella. Occasionally, Thomas was a tad off pitch or raspy. “Me and my sinuses are having a fight," she’d said during her invitation to the audience to call out requests, and from time to time, her sinuses won.
The ninety-minute set went into orbit with “Oh Me Oh My.” Songs like this are why New Orleans based Thomas is a Grammy Award winning Soul and Rhythm 'n Blues singer. Her voice had that mix of urgent desperation and determination that penetrates so much of the blues. For most of the night, the band was instrumental backup for Thomas with solos few and far between. During this temblor of a song, the saxophone and trumpet ricocheted off Thomas's energy to produce blistering solos and some front line synchronized dance moves that rocked the house.
The fans kept requesting and Irma and The Professionals kept cranking them out - 17 by my count. By the time she ended the evening with the classic New Orleans “Sing It One More Time Like That,” the audience was on its feet. It’s not often we Bostonians can make requests of royalty. The Soul Queen from New Orleans is in town for two more nights. Take advantage of it.
You Can Take My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man
Hip Shakin’ Mama
Underground Stream (“You think you can figure this one out?”, she says to the band. The bass and drummer tried, the others stood back and smiled.)
Never Make The Same Mistake Twice
Tears From A Smoke Filled Room
Oh Me Oh My
River Is Waiting
This Bitter Earth
Some Things You Never Get Used To (a cappella after saying "I made this in 1964 when they called them albums!")
Time On My Side
You Don’t Know Nothin’ About Love
Hard To Get Harder To Hold
Simply The Best
Sing It One More Time Like That (The encore)
Robert "B.J." Harvey-Bass/Vocals