Smokey Robinson Live at the Birmingham Symphony Hall by Brian Ellis
I must admit to deliberately not going to see many live soul acts as I'm often disappointed as more often than not the artists are never really able to match (or better) their original recording. However since there was the chance (maybe last chance) of seeing a live performance in the UK by a giant and absolute icon of soul music, my wife and I attended the Birmingham Symphony Hall to see Smokey Robinson on Friday night (29 June).
Show commenced at 7.30pm with a warm up act - a 'comedian' (I use the term cautiously) who was utterly attrocious, straining to raise even a titter from the audience (where's Bernard Manning when you need him!!). He was on for half an hour, then there was a further half hour wait with some background music playing.
The backing band, singers and strings section came on to the stage, accompanied by two female dancers who adopted a pose centre stage; the orchestra commenced playing, then rapidly moving into the opening bars of 'Going to a Go Go' and sliding in slowly from unlit left stage, dressed in a black three-quarter length coat, black shirt and black trousers was the unmistakable figure of Smokey, breaking quickly into the first lines of the song. Hairs on the back of the neck moment!! He proceeded into a medley of Temptations tracks ('The way you do the things you do', 'Get Ready', My Girl etc) to rapturous applause. Then went in to 'Baby, Baby' which was stunning - bringing out the best applause of the night and a standing ovation - more hairs on the neck.
He sang a number of other songs before moving off stage for a change of clothes and for the stage to be re-arranged. At this point a projector screen descended from the roof and an advertisement started to play with Smokey giving a very sugary commentary ('I love love, because love is timeless') to promote his latest CD. All a bit too sickly and 'American' for me.
This was the cue for the lights to rise and for us to see the stage re-arranged with a more intimate set up - a four piece jazz quartet arrangement, Smokey emerging newly attired in a dark suit, shirt and red tie. He launched in to his first number of his second set - a jazzy rendition of 'Fly me to the moon' (OMG - what's going on here?); this was quickly followed by other 'Andy Williams type arrangements' and me quickly losing a good bit of interest - but hanging on in there, as right before my eyes was an icon and a hero. Not sure how long this went on for (maybe 5 or 6 numbers) - whatever it was, was far too long for me.
This led to another break while the stage was re-arranged to its original format; Smokey re-emerged in a shirt and silver trousers. 'Being with you' and 'Just to see her' alongside 'Tears of a Clown' pushed the show back on to full power. He then brought forward Marv Tarplin to front stage - looking totally cool, relaxed and taking it all in his stride - everything went quiet and the opening guitar riff to 'Tracks of My Tears' started to leak from Marv's magical fingers - more hairs and the applause exploded. Smokey finished his performance and went off stage to a standing ovation and the inevitable 'More', More', 'More'.
He re-emerged and sang 'Cruising' - great stuff. Then for his finale he 'split' the audience down the middle and started a contest as to which side of the audience could sing best the chorus to 'Cruising'. FFS - the show had plummeted to the standard of a third rate Hi-de-Hi holiday camp concert. This was such a disappointing end.
To sum up my views - this was a bit of a 'curates egg' performance, good in parts (no, actually great in parts) but poor in other parts (no, actually dreadful in other parts). It really puzzles me why such a giant had to descend to such an amateurish ending and also why he had to resort to singing other people's songs when he has such a massive repertoire of his own material, that would have brought the house down.
Did I enjoy it - overall yes; would I have missed it - definitely not; would I spend £90 on seeing the show again - no. Smokey, despite being 67 years old, has lost nothing of his voice- and he still looks great (although the jury's out on the silver trousers which tended to show that his waistline isn't quite as svelt as it was). He gave us a solid 2 hours of his talent. He still remains a hero, icon and giant - I just wish the two elements of the show I've negatively commented on hadn't been included.
I guess that many other Soul Sourcers might have been to one of his UK performances and wondered what they thought of the shows?