July 8, 2009
Chastain Park Amphitheatre
Atlanta , GA
Scheduled for only one day after the emotionally draining funeral for Smokey Robinson's “little brother” Michael Jackson, which began with Smokey speaking, many expected this concert to be postponed or cancelled. Instead, the evening was to be a celebration of not only the two artists performing, but of the entire 50 years of Motown Records (which Robinson co-founded). Both artists sprinkled amusing and insightful anecdotes about working with their friends Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5 and so many others.
Gladys Knight started the evening with a review of her gospel-tinged hits. Her amazing voice hit the early evening air with the narration of “Try To Remember”. It set the tone for the night. There was a bittersweetness that gave way almost immediately to a full-fledged revival feel. At one point early in the show, her stunningly solid band even slid into The Jacksons' “Shake Your Body” as Ms. Knight shimmied and smiled. Gladys let us all know about the development of the uber-classic “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and how it was passed through her hands prior to becoming better known by Marvin Gaye. We heard about what “a square” Curtis Mayfield was despite being the man behind such definitively cool ‘70s fare as “Superfly” and Gladys and her Pips' theme to Claudine , “Keep on Keeping On”.
Gladys confessed to misgivings about “If I Were Your Woman”, saying she protested the content as too suggestive. When Motown president Berry Gordy insisted, she luckily gave in and had one of her most important hits. Other emotionally hard-hitting classics like “The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” and the award winning “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” enraptured the audience.
This beautiful summer evening set couldn't end without “Midnight Train To Georgia”. One of the actual Pips even sauntered out to huge smiles from Gladys. He stood behind the mic doing all the iconic backup singer moves on his own. Every time a “woo - woo” came up in the song, the whole crowd shouted along. The crowd was happy and loosening up for the first time after a few weeks of mourning the loss of Michael Jackson. This is the healing power of music. And Gladys set Smokey up for a home run performance.
When the house lights went down and the tribal-pop beat of “Going To A Go-Go” began, the crowd was already primed. Replete with colorfully clothed go-go dancers on either side, Smokey Robinson made his entrance glowing. The shimmering white suit made his voice and visage all the more otherworldly. Smokey was smiling. This was the sound. No one can say that he's lost anything in the voice department. “Ooh Baby Baby” was even more slow and deliberate than his recording with The Miracles. “You've Really Got A Hold On Me” was sultry and smooth. Prior to “Tears Of A Clown”, Smokey did a dead on impression of the co-songwriter Stevie Wonder. Smokey's charisma was not only evident in his musical performance but his borderline stand-up comic delivery. This was a joyous event. He kept mentioning the 50 years of Motown. How can that be? Looking at this man onstage, it was impossible to believe that it could've been that long.
Smokey veered into a few songs he'd written for other Motown artists, most notably his stone-cold classic “My Girl” which he wrote for The Temptations. He also hit on “Get Ready” and “The Way You Do The Things You Do”, even telling of his inspirations and the environment in which the songs were born. This had become more than a concert. It was a master class in some of the most amazing pop music of all time.
The hits came one after another: “I Second That Emotion”, “Tracks Of My Tears”, “The Quiet Storm”, and of course, the venue curfew came before Smokey exhausted the tunes for which he's known. By the time he hit the later hits, Smokey had switched the white suit for a red-leather Studio 54 worthy look. He poked fun at himself while using the look to his advantage for a sultry performance of “Being With You”.
The evening wound up with an super-extended version of “Cruisin'” that brought people from the crowd onto the stage. Every one was singing along. Even after the show was over and people were heading to their cars, they were still singing, “I love it when we're cruisin' together”.
This show was one of those timeless moments. People in their sixties moved and felt like they were in their twenties again. People in their forties relived their childhoods. The youngest in attendance got a lesson in popular culture, heard some jokes, got the first hand scoop on “what really happened” back when music made a difference. And they did it all to the tune of the most memorable music of its time.
Chris McKay / concertshots.com