Backbeat: The Great Bobby Womack Rocks NYC Apple Store With Damon Albarn, XL's Richard Russell
Backbeat: The Great Bobby Womack Rocks NYC Apple Store With Damon Albarn, XL's Richard Russell

Rocking the tech emporium: From left: XL's Richard Russell, TV on the Radio's Jaleel Bunton, Bobby Womack, Remi Kabaka, Kwes (behind the piano) and Damon Albarn playing NYC's SoHo Apple Store. (Photo: Andy Gensler)

'It fired me up again," were the words legendary 68-year old musician and singer Bobby Womack used to describe the Gorillaz, the music project the man sitting directly to his right -- Damon Albarn -- founded and which reignited his music career. The duo, along with the man flanking Womack to his left, XL Records founder/president Richard Russell, were explaining the genesis of Bravest Man in the Universe, Womack's first album of original music in 18 years, at a Q&A and the first-ever live performance of the music last night (Sept. 18) at NYC's SoHo Apple store (his tour earlier in the summer was cancelled due to health reasons).

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Albarn told the audience of perhaps 200 how creating instrumental music sometimes evokes certain voices. The music he made for the Gorillaz, for example, prompted the great Bobby Womack to pop into his head and then later into his recording studio. "I've always been in love with his voice and spirit," Albarn said. But their first studio experience together he compared to a "baptism by fire."

Apparently when Womack first stepped into Albarn's studio he sang for 45 minutes straight before literally passing out. "I forgot to eat," Womack said, "and I'm a diabetic…the last thing I remember was some gorilla feeding me a banana."

Clad in matching baseball jackets with "BW" on the shoulder (from left) Damon Albarn, Bobby Womack, Richard Russell took questions from both writer Josh Eells (far right) and the audience. (Photo: Oswald L. Henderson)

Richard Russell also came to the studio, which surprised Womack. "I saw him and was like 'Who is this guy?'" he said. "I ain't ever seen the president of a record company come and see the shit I was doing… but he's very creative and right where he should be." Russell, it should be noted, is responsible for similarly jumpstarting Gil Scott Heron's career with his lauded final album I'm New Here.

Over the course of Womack's storied fifty-something-year career, which includes his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he played with everyone from Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin to Sly Stone and penned hits like " It's All Over Now" and "Across 110th Street." On this night, prompted by moderator/writer Josh Eells, he told a story about working with the great Janis Joplin. The duo went outside the studio one night and sat in his new car. Joplin asked Womack how he could afford such an expensive new vehicle and he said it was because of recording sessions like the one they were doing. Their meeting sparked an idea for a song she recorded that night. "Ten or twenty years later Womack said "I heard that song in a car commercial! [starts singing] "Oh lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz…"

"Bravest Man In The Universe"

After several audience questions, primarily revolving around the pros and cons of contemporary production on Bravest Man (to which a fed-up Albarn finally said, "enough talk let's play music!") the band performed five songs from the album. The band consisted of Albarn on upright piano, Russell a digital MPC drum machine which the label head tapped rhythmically (Russell, after all, put out dance singles under the name Kicks Like a Mule with Nick Halkes), UK producer/musicain Kwes on keyboards, Remi Kabaka on percussion and TV on the Radio's Jaleel Bunton on bass.

Highlights included the solo acoustic "Deep River," the confessional "Please Forgive My Heart," the groove-filled title cut and set closer "Jubilee" that got the small crowd, the band and the Apple store's "geniuses" on their feet hooting, hollering and clapping.

Notable music biz in the house included Beggars president Matt Harmon, Head of XL US Kris Chen, XL A&R Imran Ahmed, head of sales Rusty Clarke and publicist Sonya Kolowrat. Also in the house, Jody Klein from AbKCo, Womack's longtime publisher; Christine Colbert from Warp who has Kwes on their label; and the ubiquitous Ryan Schreiber from Pitchfork.

The night's performance marks the first and so far only scheduled public performance of Womack's new material. Apple, however, plans to release a live video of the performance for free on iTunes. The group will play " Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" this Friday and Womack will play this weekend with his band at Chicago's Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements (booked by by Pitchfork Fest booker Mike Reed).