Question: What is 72 years old, struts across stage wearing five-inch stiletto heels, and can still blow the roof off of a concert hall for two-and-a-half straight hours?
If you said, “True soul survivor, music icon, and Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love,” you’d not only be correct, you’d also be constructing sentences that are eerily like mine. And you might be disappointed that the above question was not a set-up for a dirty punch line.
Well, Darlene Love is no joke, and that’s our music lesson for today.
Love, a deft career re-inventor who has gone from soul diva to Broadway star to character actress to soul-diva-in-a Santa-hat over the course of her 52 years in show business, brought her stage show to the New Jersey Performance Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark last night and invited along a couple of awesome guests to make it one-of-a-kind event.
By the way, if you’re thinking a concert hall in Newark, New Jersey, former carjacking capitol of America, must look like a conference room at the YMCA, you are so wrong. NJPAC is the Carnegie Hall of New Jersey, only more modern and with much better acoustics. In fact, it’s the best venue around for sound quality. Every note of every instrument is clear as a chiming bell in that joint, which benefits any artist who brings an ensemble as large as that of Darlene Love, with her nine back-up singers and ten-piece band.
Love may have lost a note or two from the top-end of her range over the years, but she’s only added more soul and power with each passing year. When introduced last night, she certainly didn’t move like a septuagenarian. Rather, she marched onto center stage, grabbed the microphone, and instantly took ownership of the room. I’m trying not to gush about this woman and, instead, give you a fair-and-balanced, FOX-News style concert review, but she leaves me no choice but to shower praise. Whether singing medleys of soul and Motown classics, belting out Christmas favorites, or performing her own pop tunes from the 1960s (as a solo artist and as lead singer of The Crystals), she was a pitch-perfect, funny, charming, exuberant powerhouse that held the crowd enthralled for nearly two and half hours.
Love’s guest performer for the first set was none other than Mary Wilson, founder and sometimes lead vocalist of The Supremes, who were once the most successful female pop act on the entire planet. Wilson strolled out in her famous silver sequined dress (albeit a few sizes up from the one she wore in 1967… but just a few!) and performed a song from Dreamgirls as well as a slow-jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Whereas Darlene Love’s voice is youthful and spirited, Wilson sings with deep soul and gravitas. Her power of vocal projection is such that, when she pulled the mic away during the high notes, she was still plainly audible in a 3000-seat venue, over a full band, from 100 feet away.
I could almost feel the audience members thinking, “I hate to be a giddy fanboy, but: Holy shit! I’m standing in the same room with one of the original Supremes! And not that cutthroat bitch, Diana Ross, either. And certainly not Florence Ballard, because if I’m standing in the same room with Ms. Ballard, then I’ve moved onto a different plane of existence and am not in a position to be writing a concert review for PFC.”
Come to think of it, I might have been doing a bit of my own projection there.
The most emotionally powerful moment of the event came during the second set. Let me preface by saying that, to your average entertainment consumer, the passing of Whitney Houston was a sad but not-unexpected ending to the troubled life of a superstar singer. But in the soul music community, and especially the soul music community here in New Jersey where homegrown Whitney was almost royalty, her death was and still is devastating. Last night, Darlene stood in the spotlight of an otherwise darkened stage and sang, a capella, in tribute to the late artist. Then she introduced her second guest: Gospel singer Cissy Houston, who is also Whitney’s mom.
Houston, hunched and frail and supported by a cane, had to be helped across the stage and guided onto a stool that had a microphone stand placed before it. Her voice cracking and tears streaming, she said to the audience, “I don’t know how Darlene expects me to sing after that.” Then the stage lights came up, the band started playing, and this brittle, broken-looking old woman sang by far the most epic version of “Oh Holy Night” I’ve ever heard. With the notes she was able to hit and the tremendous power with which she did so (like her daughter used to), I’m surprised NJPAC’s glass-ball chandelier didn’t explode.
You know you are a great singer when you can make an icy, unbelieving heathen like me want to fall on his knees and start praying to something. Needless to say, Houston received a thunderous standing O, and the only dry eyes in the place belonged to my Asian wife, who speaks English as a second language and thought “Cissy Houston” was “The Sicilian.” The public crying jag made a lot more sense to her when I explained everything in the parking lot afterward.
So anyway, Darlene Love, great showman that she is, knew she had to pull us all back from the brink, so the rest of the evening was filled with up-tempo Crystals hits (He’s a Rebel, Do Doo Ron Ron, etc.) and big, happy rock-n-roll Christmas tunes. All this after 10 p.m. from a grandmother who professes to arise at 3:30 every morning.
If there’s a downside to performing a “party” show at a stately venue like NJPAC, it’s that the atmosphere is not conducive to dancing in the aisles. As someone with a good share of stage experience, I can sense when a performer is feeling a bit frustrated with a sedate crowd. Darlene Love is way too classy to bitch at her audience (unlike Rainbow lead vocalist Joe Lynn Turner, who once told an audience of which I was a part, “Clap harder, you fuck-heads”), but I’ll bet she has more fun playing at nightclubs with open dance floors than at posh concert halls. Rows of numbered seats and ushers in bow ties have a way of suppressing the inner Soul Train we all carry around in our hearts.
So anyway, great show. I’m going again next year and so should you. Peace and Happy Holidays.
I’ll close with this clip of Darlene Love on Letterman’s show this past Friday night: