Lee Fields – Hollywood Avondale: December 10, 2023

Lee Fields

As he fast approaches his 74th birthday, you’d expect American soul-funk-blues veteran Lee Fields would be easing off and slowing down.

He might be looking at issuing a greatest hits package, perhaps a live album from a recent tour performance, or tidy up the finer points of a collection of cover versions paying homage to the artists who have inspired him. Being a religious man – he wears a crucifix around his neck – he might consider a set of gospel classics, or even a Christmas record (complete with him in a Santa hat and sparkly red suit on the cover, of course).

It appears absolutely none of these things are happening.

Because for a soul survivor –  who in New Zealand would’ve already been collecting a pension and probably having a punt on the horses down at his local TAB –  there is no stopping Lee Fields now.

In an energetic and charismatic performance last night at close to full Hollywood Avondale, Elmer “Lee” Fields tore the roof off that sucker with a career showcase demonstrating he’s got plenty left to give.

This is a man who appears to live and breathe showbusiness in that special way only black American musicians can. Explosive, authentic, heart-warming and musically super-slick: a shiny suit with sequins, a bold red shirt, and dance moves which would put people half his age to shame.

Lee Fields first caught my attention with his 2010 album My World, issued by the redoubtable team behind the Truth and Soul/Daptone/Crown labels. That record, to my ears, was easily the best of the year and shot him to wider prominence after a somewhat stop-start career during which at one point he was even selling real estate as disco took over the clubs and soul took a back seat.

Blown away by the emotion and sensibilities of the My World album, I had the pleasure of an lengthy phone interview with Lee, who proved engaging and talkative, showering praise on Gabriel Roth and Leon Michels, the brains behind the retro-soul labels who also supercharged the careers of the late Sharon Jones (“Miss Dynamite”) and Charles Bradley (“The Screaming Eagle of Soul”). In that interview, Lee spoke with love, warmth, humour and excitement, telling me “I’m so excited, I think I need a glass of water!”.

That same love, warmth, humour and excitement came through in his performance last night, his second in New Zealand and the last of his 8-date Australasian tour – several of those dates have been sell-outs. He frequently engaged with the crowd, told tall tales to introduce the songs, and generally strutted the stage like the born showman he is.

The biggest responses were for his dance moves, his ear-splitting cries and howls at the top of his powerful vocal range, and the three cuts he chose from the aforementioned My World Album – Money Is King, Honey Dove (written for his wife) and the truly outstanding Ladies. Elsewhere, he picked tunes from his long career, including several from his recent album Sentimental Fool – the latest in a string of records he pumps out roughly every two years.

Two instrumentals, including the show opener, gave the band The Expressions a chance to stretch out and during the show closer the saxophonist’s solo was pure vibes, something akin to musical pandemonium which whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

It was soulful, sharp, powerful and oh so much fun. When Lee Fields is on stage, you can barely look away – it’s magnetising viewing.

Three minor complaints: 1) at no time did Lee stop to introduce the band members, although the more discerning soul/funk fan will have spotted New Zealander Jeremy Toy (Leonard Simpson Duo, Open Souls) on guitar, 2) Lee’s continued cries of “Are you happy?!?!” did grow a little tiresome and repetitive, and 3) the show was short – just a smidgeon more than hour.

That said, at the end of his performance, Lee looked absolutely shattered, dripping in sweat and appearing utterly exhausted from giving the assembled crowd what it had come to see.

I guess that’s what a life on the stage can do to a faithful showbusiness man.

Long may he strut the stage and howl into the microphone.

-Jeff Neems

Jeff Neems