Friday, May 21, 2010

Who's the Boss?


Full disclosure here: we could never, ever be 100%, completely impartial when it comes to Diana Ross. We know every eyelash flutter, every hair toss, every nuance to a tee. We don't only love "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Touch Me in the Morning" or "Baby Love" - we will defend the merits of "I Am Me," "Girls," and "Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do" to the death. Having said that, being comparatively sane, we also temper this devotion to all things Ross with a healthy dose of realism, and are affectionately, chidingly remonstrating towards "our diva" when we feel that she doesn't perform to what we know are the best of her abilities. (See: "I Am Me," "Girls," and "Nobody Makes Me Crazy Like You Do," respectively, we say to thee.)

So our feelings about Miss Ross' sold out return to Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday night are decidedly mixed. On the plus side: the 66 year old supreme Supreme still looks absolutely divalicious, her figure now becomingly anointed with the pleasing curves which once eluded The Skinny One in the Middle; she sounds better than she has in years, her whispery, breathy tone satisfyingly (and surprisingly) robust; and most important, she seems to be relaxed, happy, and having a ball on stage. When La Ross made her grand entrance to the strains of "The Boss," bedecked in Bob Mackie's black and silver sequins and chartreuse feathers, we knew from her electric smile and commanding body language that she was not - as she has admittedly done in recent years - just going through the motions. The charge between performer and audience was instantly combustible, and we're not quite sure who was pumping whom up - but it mattered little, as the result was the same: a dynamic, iconic star who was suddenly performing as if she remembered her stature and calling as an entertainer of the first rank - and not just a respected nostalgia act.

Another notch in Ross' belt this time out: her decision to tour with a tight, top-notch 15-piece orchestra, including a live horn and string section, giving symphonic heft to her dazzling, exhaustive catalog of hits - which, if you'll remember, were all recorded with wonderful live musicians, and not a coterie of synthesizers and gadgets. And, speaking of that catalog of hits, consider this: Ross' 28-song set list on Wednesday contained no fewer than sixteen Billboard Number One hits - and she left out nine others. Can any other diva, of any age, making the concert rounds this summer come even close to that tally?

On the down side, Ross' pacing seemed off: the evening grew increasingly ballad-heavy, and even just one or two more uptempo numbers sprinkled in between would have been welcome. The evening's dramatic, heartfelt closing was a tribute to Michael Jackson, which merged Ross' 1984 #1 R&B hit, "Missing You," with Jackson's "You are Not Alone," then segued into a single verse of the tender title track from Ross' most recent, Top 40 album, I Love You (2007). Although the sentiment was clearly from the heart, it seemed almost anticlimactic, following as it did a thunderous performance of Ross' personal anthem, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and a surprisingly effective, energetic encore of the tired disco warhorse "I Will Survive."

Also, Ross' famed interaction with her audience has grown increasingly remote in recent years; although she was clearly thrilled with, and appreciative of, the tumultuous reception that New York gave her, there was little to no patter between songs, no strolls through the audience, no reaching out and touching. And it would have been nice to hear some truly rare, seldom-performed songs in the 100 minute set: while we understand that Ross simply can't omit the biggest hits from her repertoire, "What About Love," an admittedly pretty ballad from the I Love You collection, and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" - probably her most throwaway solo hit - could easily have been replaced by, say, "It's My Turn" or "Remember Me."

In her defense, though, Ross' set list has more or less been the same for nearly a decade or more, and the changes she did make were welcome: full length versions of Supremes classics she hasn't done complete renditions of in a long time, such as "Reflections," "You Can't Hurry Love," and "Come See About Me"; the surprising inclusion of a little-known ballad that Luther Vandross wrote and produced for her 1987 Red Hot Rhythm & Blues album, "It's Hard for Me to Say," delivered as a bittersweet elegy to her 1960's Motown colleagues; and, while it's not an unfamiliar addition to her shows, Billie Holiday's torchy "Don't Explain" benefited from the diva's stunning new phrasing and interpretation, things the glossy Ross is not often credited with.

In the end, though, our criticisms really stem from the fact that we truly believe that Diana Ross should be held in the same regard and esteem as a Streisand or Minnelli (well...Minnelli, pre-Gest), and while she's undoubtedly a legend and an icon, as an artist, we feel that Diana has never been given her due respect. And when she falls short of the superhuman standards we set for her (and which, at the very pinnacle of her powers, she often achieved), we're only disappointed because we want everyone to also know that she's a winner, baby! Judging by the comments as the audience left Radio City, almost everyone was blown away. (And we keep reiterating: we cannot believe how strong her voice sounded.) It's just that we know she could be even better. As it was, Diana Ross gave 110% of herself at Radio City on Wednesday night, and brought the house down. Brother, if she had given 120%, she would have absolutely leveled midtown, the boroughs, and possibly New Jersey. On that you can depend and never worry.

13 comments:

  1. Have just happened upon your blog, so glad I did.
    XX

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  2. I worship Miss Ross, but she's failed to evolve as a performer in over two decades. She lacks both Streisand's instincts and managerial acumen and Liza's endearing self-deprecating humor.

    Some of her 80s material is brilliant (Pieces of Ice, Mirror Mirror, Chain Reaction) but she didn't adjust well to the MTV-era. Once Whitney ascended, Diana seemed like an old Vegas act.

    That said, I saw her perform about 5 or 6 years ago and she delivered.

    Love your blog!

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  3. I saw Miss Ross in 1979 or so. It was a fabulous show, and the audience was very gay. Extremely so.

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  4. First let me say what a pleasure it is to read (and view the fabulous images on) your blog. I too have loved Miss Ross for years (and first saw her at Giants stadium in July 1981) and enjoyed seeing her again Weds. night but I feel you really captured my feelings as well. I was especially thrilled that she served up 6 new Mackie ensembles.
    I saw Mitzi Gaynor last night and hope to read a post from you on her and her new Mackie outfits as well.

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  5. WHAT??? Mitzi and Mackie??? OH. MY. GOD.

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  6. While its clear the blogger knows, loves and understands Diana, his comments beg the question "when is it ever going to be enough for some people". Sure the setlist has been in need of refreshening for quite sometime. And yes, she has gotten great reviews on the last couple of tours, but, I, for one, felt a like of inspiration at these dates save for the arresting performance at The Pantages. But clearly she is radiating again, and I could not be happier. To say that she has not gotten the props that Streisand has achieved is fair, but, you really cannot be serious including Liza in this category. Ross belongs up there with Streisand and Aretha (on record, not on stage). Where is gratitude in the bloggers 110% assessment? Has he not seen Aretha lately in concert? Has not heard about the disastrous reviews Whitney has been getting? Please give it a rest, will you. The inclusion of 4 tracks from "I Love You" and the surprise of "It's Hard for Me to Say" and the blend of "Love Hangover w/Take Me Higher" sounds pretty refreshing to my ears. I will witness the show Saturday in Detroit. I can see the "sparkle" and radiation that was not always apparent in recent years........there is a lot to be thankful for, 110% is more than fulfilling to someone who has seen her well past 100 times. I know the blogger meant well,and these are his opinions.......and um, you just read mine. Thanks for the best years of my life Diana.

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  7. I enjoyed your review. I was wondering what your opinion would be. Ever since I saw Mahogany with wide eyed wonderment...Miss Ross has been a style icon for me.

    I'm chairing my symphony's annual fundraiser...again...this year. I never learn! It's the 80th anniversary. Liza was a contender for our "talent" this year, but I don't carry a torch for her. I know, the horrors!

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  8. As always, Todd, your keen observations, wit and eloquence get my adrenaline going. Ross is an electrifying performer. I am now even more excited to see her next month in L.A. Her show at the Pantages Theater in 2005 was transcendant but every show since then has been a little stale. I am thrilled that she has live horns and a string section. Thanks for giving it to us Stirred, Straight Up, with a Twist.

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  9. Kirk - First off, I don't appreciate the defensive tone of your reply. As you say, you have your opinions, and I have mine; but let's keep it respectful and polite. I would never, ever tell anyone, in print or in person, to "give it a rest, will you." The debate can only go down from there.

    As for your query of "Where is [the] gratitude in the blogger's 110% assessment"? To wit:

    the 66 year old supreme Supreme still looks absolutely divalicious...

    [Diana] sounds better than she has in years...

    The charge between performer and audience was instantly combustible...

    the [updates] she did make were welcome...


    In your own words, "when is it ever going to be enough for some people"?

    I love and respect Diana, and I would hope that that love and (most important) respect came through in my critique of her Radio City performance; but I am not willing to simply applaud her just for "being Diana Ross." Yes, that's a wonderful, glorious thing to be - but as a still-valid performer who is still charging people admission to see her perform, Diana should still be open and receptive to constructive criticism and suggestions which would potentially make her an even stronger, more valid performer today.

    Simply because she's performing better than Whitney and Aretha doesn't mean that Diana Ross cannot still continue to grow and improve. It's insulting to her and her talent to suggest that her fans should simply be "grateful" that she's not 300 lbs. or falling apart from drug use, and not have any expectations beyond that.

    I also understand that Diana cannot possibly please every fan personally with her song choices. And, in my review, I applauded the inclusion of "It's Hard for Me to Say" and Supremes songs she has not performed in some time.

    Finally, while I do think that comparisons are odious, since this commenter brought Aretha and Whitney into the discussion, I feel validated in mentioning another performer whom I admire, respect, and see everytime that she's in town: the nightclub singer Marilyn Maye.

    Miss Maye is 82 years old, performs 25-30 songs for anywhere from an hour and 45 minutes to over 2 hours at every single concert, and each time she comes to town, has a completely new program with brand new material and arrangements, which she has had to learn and put together, usually on only a few months' (and in one case, one week's) notice. Allowing for the fact that Marilyn doesn't have, like Diana, dozens of Top 10 hits which are "must-do" inclusions, even if Marilyn did the same 10-15 songs at each show, her 30-plus song sets would allow for 15-20 brand new numbers every time. And I repeat: the woman is 82 years old! And has a Broadway belter voice which is still as strong and clear as most performers half her age.

    So, yes, I have high standards when it comes to judging performances. I have even higher standards when I have seen said performers multiple times, am aware of their limitations and strengths, and still believe strongly in their capabilities.

    I am grateful, too, for Diana's contributions over the past half-decade, and for the contributions she's made to my life, personally. That does not preclude me from criticizing (again, in a hopefully constructive and respectful manner) where I feel it's warranted.

    Ponder this: if the mentors whom Diana credits with making her believe that she could move mountains, such as Berry Gordy, had simply accepted what Diana Ross had to offer at face value, rather than recognizing something more in her, and constantly encouraging her to challenge herself, to push the envelope, to go one step farther - if Berry hadn't done all of those things, would we even be having this discussion about her in 2010? Would any of us grow and evolve if everyone only praised the good, and overlooked the opportunities for growth?

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  10. Correction: "I am grateful, too, for Diana's contributions over the past half-century..."! Big difference!

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  11. TJB, your concert recaps always make me feel as if I've attended them myself. Love it! My favorite Supremes song are among the lesser ever mentioned, The Happening and Love is Like An Itchin' in My Heart. I used to play the hell out of her 2-record Greatest Hits album which had a Supremes medley and for years all I knew of those songs were the snippets therin, so I know what you mean about performing the numbers whole. She's had several issues over the last few years, so it's great to know she's back in there swingin'! Thanks!

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  12. I was at the show, 6th row, center. on the aisle. I sat directly in front of both Rhonda Ross-Kendrick & Chudney Ross, both of whom are lovely women, in both appearance(Rhonda's images DO NOT do her justice.)and demeanor. Son Ross Naess was seated in the section to our left, while first husband Bob Ellis was to our right. Rhonda's love for her mother was evident from the time the elder Miss Ross appeared on stage. Rhonda sang along to every song, cheered every flourish, costume change, etc., even accidentally hitting me in the back of my head, she was clapping so hard! She apologized, of course.

    As for the music, I was a little disappointed. As reviewers have noted, the sound mix was incredibly muddled. One could barely hear the strings, though, it was clear, from what could be heard, that they were on top of their game. I enjoyed the expanded repertoire, though, I'd have loved some of her 1970s gems, like "Remember Me", "One Love In My Lifetime" and many others from "The Black Album", as some fans call it. Again, that's wholly subjective. How many songs can ANY artist be expected to remember or perform on tour?

    I found her voice to be better than I've heard in years, but, there's definitely room for improvement. Her technique is not as complete as it could be. I understand that she, to some degree, uses the diaphragmatic breathing technique, but, if she were to slightly tighten her lower abs upon exhaling/singing, it would give her voice maximum resonance & power with minimum effort. The same goes for her vowel placement. Check out her opening notes for this show's "The Boss", then, compare them to her 1979 Caesar's Palace performance of the same. The later performance is the stronger one, not just because she's younger, but, also, because she's placed the hard "oo" sound directly behind her teeth, where all "hard vowel" sounds(ee, oo, ae, hard i, as in 'sit'), and softer vowels should be projected "from the top of the head". Vocal legends such as Sarah Vaughan & Mel Torme were masters this vocal technique, using them well into their 60's, even when they were seriously ill. Were Miss Ross to return to this technique, as well, there'd be no stopping her.

    Yes, I've posted this same information on her Facebook page(Just in case you were wondering.lol).

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    1. Thanks so much for your insightful comments on this and my other Ross entry. I certainly can't add anything after that!!!

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