By Devon Wendell
Before Smokey stole a piece of the Hollywood Bowl stage forever Friday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic demonstrated its love for American standards. Half of the evening’s program was a dedication to the American classic song books of Bernstein, Mancini, and Gershwin by the Philharmonic under the conduction of Sarah Hicks, but it was headliner Smokey Robinson who made the show’s focus about soul and intimacy.
After the “Star Spangled Banner,” the Philharmonic performed a focused reading of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture From Candide and a rather pedestrian rendition of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” as well as a quick run through of selections from George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. As stellar as the orchestra was, however, it didn’t quite seem to fit with the distinct R&B mood and sound established by the King of Motown, Smokey Robinson.
After a brief intermission, Robinson and his band took the Bowl stage and immediately launched into his Motown classic hits (with and without The Miracles): “Going To A Go- Go,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Tears Of A Clown” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me.” The instant Smokey came onstage, he owned it for the rest of the evening. At 73 years young, his charisma and his vocal abilities have only gotten stronger.
This proved to be especially true on slow ballads such as “Quiet Storm,” “Ooh Baby Baby” and a magnificent cover of Bart Howard’s standard “Fly Me To The Moon.”
Smokey then paid tribute to The Temptations, performing a medley of songs that he wrote for his Motown cohorts such as “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” “Get Ready” and “My Girl.” This was a nostalgic moment for those of us who know the importance of Smokey Robinson as a prolific song writer, and an educational survey for the younger people in attendance who may not know.
Smokey’s sensual power and vocal mastery were frighteningly powerful. That silky vibrato, those falsetto notes, breathy pauses, and the way he can hang on a phrase like no one else, made this a performance to remember for a lifetime. Smokey sang like a great jazz instrumentalist in his prime. One of the many highlights of the evening was a brilliant take on Norah Jones’ hit “Don’ Know Why,” in which Robinson stretched out every verse to emphasize the song’s meaning, making it feel as though this song had been written just for him. He rang out the final verse “Don’ know Why I didn’t Come” like it was his primary purpose in life.
Smokey’s energy seemed to have no bounds. He walked back and fourth on the stage with the intensity of a gospel preacher in the heights of a sermon. Smokey rubbed his body in a sexual manner as he accompanied the scantily clad lady dancers. And none of it seemed inappropriate.
Smokey sang an a cappella tribute to Motown founder and best friend Berry Gordy (who was seated close to the stage) in the melancholy “Did You Know?”
Then the orchestra exited for the final portion of the show and Robinson did a set with just his band, starting with one of his newer tunes, “Love Bath,” which was slow, slick, and nasty in all the best ways. At times, the band played at the level of a whisper in which you barely knew they were there, so as not to take away from Robinson’s electrifying magnetism. It takes a truly great band to pull that off. Guitarist Robert “Boogie” Bowles played hook after hook along with Demetrious Pappas’ tasteful but psychedelic synthesizer lines in a way that was hypnotic and funky.
Background singers Kari Benoit, Serena Henry and Amon Bourne got to really show off their harmonic skills in this last set, especially on “That Place,” “Just To See Her” amd “Tu Me Besas Muy Rico,” a sexy ballad sung in both English and Spanish.
On “Tracks Of My Tears,” the entire Bowl crowd sang along with every word. Smokey took his time and the band played a slower arrangement of this Miracles masterpiece. After this highlight of the show, Smokey and company closed with “Cruisin’,” bringing a few audience members onstage and asking sections of the audience to sing along with the song’s chorus.
As the music stopped, it felt as though it could have kept going all night. Smokey Robinson clearly has the key to a universal song book – one that lasts forever in the hearts of anyone lucky enough to experience it it.
Smokey was backed by Demetrious Pappas: musical director and keyboards, Harold “Tony” Lewis: drums, Gary Foote: bass, S’Von Ringo: keyboards, Kenneth Gioffre: saxophone and flute, Robert “Boogie” Bowles: guitar, Karri Benoit, Serena Henry, and Amon Bourne: background vocals, and dancers Tracie Burton and Linda Cevallos French.
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To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell, click HERE.