Ray Charles Tribute a Simple, Swingin’ Affair

Nnenna Freelon and Clint Holmes let the good times roll.

Nnenna Freelon and Clint Holmes let the good times roll.

Don’t hit the road, Jack.

That’s my humble advice and hopeful wish for Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles, the limited-run (for now) newbie at the Venetian Theatre through October 29.

Deeply imbedded in America’s musical fabric, genre-transcending Brother Ray—who hop-scotched from R&B/soul to pop to country to jazz to even show tunes—is an ideal celebratory subject. All of his range is traveled in this straight-ahead, marvelously old-school production.

Left largely intact from the one-off performance in February at The Smith Center, this is often exhilarating craft-work by seasoned pros: vocal masters Take 6 and Nnenna Freelon and saxophonist Kirk Whalum, plus the crisp swing of the Las Vegas All-Star Big Band (led by UNLV jazz department head David Loeb) and stellar backing by the Las Vegas Mass Choir.

Oh, and an electrified Clint Holmes as host/central performer in his Strip return, with enthusiasm exceeding even his own standard for passion. Holmes is happily on fire.

Frills are few—zero fussy effects, and modest video touches that are mostly Ray photos and a montage of his album covers—and bombast is absent. On a fairly unadorned set, the show begins simply with 16 musicians filing onstage, laying down an intro for Holmes, who often sings solo and joins other artists on many of the other tunes. And what tunes they are.

Opening with “Let the Good Times Roll,” finger-poppin’ Holmes is on his own roll: trading spirited licks with Whalum (who’s frequently featured) on “I Got a Woman” and playing off Whalum’s warm, buttery chord runs on “Come Rain or Come Shine’; swapping snappy vamps on “Hit the Road Jack” with choir members doubling as the Raelettes (the name of Charles’ backup singers); turning the theater into a revival tent with the choir and Take 6 on “What’d I Say” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”; and playfully riffing with Freelon on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “Deed I Do.”

When Holmes wades into the first few rows to croon “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” it’s a maximum mellow-out.

In the few Holmes-less moments, Take 6’s flawless harmonies do justice to “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” though they’re responsible for the only misstep: a weirdly upbeat, beat-boxing interpretation of the normally sorrowful “Rainy Night in Georgia,” sacrificing the tune’s power for a gimmick. And Freelon both purrs and soars on “How Long Has This Been Going On?”

When everyone jams together, it’s a flat-out blowout, juggernauting like a runaway train from “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” to the “awww” moment of “Georgia on My Mind” (highlighted by Holmes’ gutbucket vocals) to the climactic “America the Beautiful,” saluting Brother Ray’s iconic version.

Georgia on My Mind is an 80-minute reminder of showbiz purity: It’s what’s possible when the music itself—in the hands and pipes of expert interpreters—is more than enough. No artificial ingredients—i.e., audio/visual pyrotechnics and too-clever staging—necessary.

Indifference to it doesn’t mean someone’s got the proverbial “hole in their soul.” … More like a crater.

Got an entertainment tip? Email Steve.Bornfeld@VegasSeven.com.

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