You wait years for a Bobby Womack show, and two turn up at once. Unfortunately, that is not as good as it sounds. The 68-year-old soul giant's comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, is one of his best, but it sounds very little like the others, grounded as it is in hip-hop and electronica. On his recent US dates he ignored it entirely. Tonight he opts to perform it as a separate set, with a minimal lineup including producers Damon Albarn and XL's Richard Russell, before returning after an interval for a journey through the past with a band three times as large.

You can see why this clean separation makes sense logistically, but the low-key start squanders beautiful, reflective songs on a restless crowd. Wearing a pillar-box-red leather suit, the kind of thing only a charismatic soul veteran could dream of getting away with, Womack sings of age, regret and forgiveness in a voice marbled with all three, but it feels like reading a memoir back to front. Conversely, once he gets to the extrovert soul revue portion, there are few pauses for introspection.

The only link between the two sets is Womack's formidable personality. He may sometimes seem physically frail, as anybody would just a few months after undergoing surgery for colon cancer, but his voice is indefatigable. He has always been one of soul music's sharpest and most adult lyricists, peopling his songs with tangible characters, flawed but resilient, for whom life is, to quote his 1972 classic Across 110th Street, "a day-to-day fight". Each song is a story, often enriched with long monologues: If You Think You're Lonely Now and I Wish He Didn't Trust Me So Much sprawl into roiling psychodramas.

The second half's emotional high point is a tremulous version of Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, which Womack shares with his daughter. If anyone has a right to sing this song, it's the man who, as Cooke's teenage guitarist in 1963, heard it before almost anyone else. He pays homage to his late mentor alongside fellow fallen legends Marvin Gaye and James Brown so that when he defiantly declares, "I'm still here!", it's with the acknowledgement that many of his peers aren't so lucky; when he sings, "It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die," he is embraced by grateful applause. Womack has an illustrious past and an unexpectedly encouraging future. They're just not quite on speaking terms.

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Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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