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.