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The sound is smooth. Like fine wine but judging from the man’s voice, he’s been enjoying whiskey. William Bell, 78, the soul legend from Memphis US, arrived at the Helsinki Festival on Wednesday evening with a career spanning six decades, but the gig in Finland was his first.
The Huvila Festival tent rising in Tokoinranta next to the Zoo Bay (Eläintarhanlahti) in Hakaniemi was sold out. Inside, hundreds of seats were occupied by middle-aged spectators, their head nodding and leg jamming to the raspy wailing of Mr Bell, who was swaying across the stage in his blue checkered jacket and dark hat, accompanied by his orchestra of eight.
One of the first songs of the evening was “The Three of Me,” a schizophrenic love song of a dream where Bell reflects upon his life, the mistakes he made and what the future may bring.
It took the losing of your love to make me see
There ain’t no room for the three of me
While my assistant was enjoying a tall anniversary beer for the centenary of Finland’s independence and wondering about the venue in the back row after denying a seat reserved for her (“I am not, after all, that old!”), she made careful observations of the venue: “I had the chance to adore the bald-headed old gentlemen. I even saw a bemused baby equipped with massive earmuffs.”
While unfamiliar to Bell’s career, my assistant had found a long list of Bell’s songs from her long-standing and trusty buddy, Wikipedia; there were singles listed from 1961 to 2016. A deep search revealed that Mr Bell has been heavily sampled by rap artists. One of the most popular songs being “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” sampled by at least 10 rappers. This is also one of the big reasons for his popularity among the younger generation enjoying loose-fit clothes. In addition, artists like Billy Idol, Cream and Otis Redding have all performed Bell covers at some point of their careers.
In Helsinki, Bell indeed did perform the cult song of forgotten love. “Would you do something for me lady?” he asked a member of the audience. ”I’m only a man and I forgot . . . I forgot to be your lover.” And so came in the licking guitar riff.
In addition to his demanding voice, Mr Bell commanded the stage with his minimalistic, but elegant dance moves. During “You Don’t Miss Your Water” the dance moves slowed down and after the song, the bright spotlight was cast upon the audience. “Now I feel guilty,” said my assistant while taking a long sip of her beer. “There is no need to check, whether the people are awake. We are!”
Other highlights of the concert were “Everybody Loves a Winner” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the latter re-recorded on his recent Grammy-winning album, This Is Where I Live (2016). Bell wrote the song in 1967, and it has even been covered by Homer Simpson. Bell’s version is better, though.
Even during the second time around.