Aftermath: Tina Turner at Toyota Center

Photos by Mark C. Austin. Click here for a slideshow.

It should come as no surprise that Tina Turner’s little performance at Toyota Center Monday night has left Aftermath grasping for superlatives. It was like watching Mark Twain read aloud from Huckleberry Finn or Edward R. Murrow interview Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on Normandy Beach. Or maybe it was even better.

Just over a month shy of her 69th birthday, Turner led her entourage – ten-man band, backup singers including Rolling Stones tour vet Lisa Fischer, four lissome dancers clad like Beyonce in “Crazy in Love” and an all-male “Ninja” troupe whose choreography was as much martial arts as dance – in a career-spanning retrospective (save the early Ike & Tina “A Fool in Love” years) and object lesson in why retirement is overrated.

Timely stuff, considering the economy. And the ticket prices.

Carefully plotted to allow Turner plenty of time for costume changes (of which there were legion) or just to take a breather – a funny interlude where two Ninjas squared off as stagecrasher and security, or letting Fischer take over lead vocals for (what else?) the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll” - the 135-minute set, split by a half-hour intermission, didn’t let up from the moment the band began a stout Southern-style version of the Beatles’ “Get Back” before the curtain even opened.

It parted to reveal Turner perched high on a hydraulic platform maybe 30 feet above the stage, her signature iconography intact – the hair, the heels, the clingy shimmering blouse-and-leggings, those impossible legs. Then, the voice. Elemental and overpowering, she gathered velocity through slow-burn opener “Steamy Windows” and sleek ‘80s funk vamp “Typical Male” before reaching cruising speed on Broadway-meets-Beale-Street extravaganza “River Deep, Mountain High.”

Spurred by saxophones honking like city buses, “What You Get Is What You See” carried a strong whiff of the Jersey shore – Springsteen or Frankie Valli, take your pick – and “Better Be Good to Me” some serious Aretha Franklin Muscle Shoals muscle (not to mention fireworks). The lacerating “Acid Queen” opened as another Who song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with Turner, a vision in a floor-length fire-engine-red evening gown, emerging from a portal in front of the video screen like a sci-fi version of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

She took the men in the audience – about a third of the packed arena, whose median age was about an AARP-eligible 50 – to school during the singalong portion of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (more like what’s her volcanic voice got to do with it), before doing the same thing with her dancers – who had to be at least 40 years her junior – during a sultry, scarlet “Private Dancer” highlighted by a George Benson-like sax solo. A Cirque du Soleil-esque Ninja interlude headed beyond Thunderdome to close the first set with an appropriately regal “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

“Enjoying the show?” an elderly gentleman behind Aftermath asked his neighbor.

“Yeah… it’s loud.”

Set two began with the Beatles’ “Help!” recast as a smoky torch song, Turner and a half-dozen of the band seated on stools and the video screen done in ‘60s black and white. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” took everyone to church as Turner put Chaka Khan to shame (sorry, Chaka), while “Undercover Agent for the Blues” stayed in Memphis to give some love to B.B. King and Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain” oozed honky-tonk piano and dripped soul. Aftermath would have taken more notes during this part of the show, but was busy playing knee drums with his pen.

That was enough sitting down, for Turner if not the audience, and the Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” was a crossfire hurricane and a half – Aftermath got all tingly thinking about what she could do to “Gimme Shelter.” Another Ninja interlude brought about the night’s best production number in “Goldeneye,” Turner’s top-five 1995 contribution to the 007-theme archives (written by Bono and the Edge, no less). Black-widow sexy in floor-length jet velvet, Turner outdid even Dame Judi Dench for gravitas.

The home stretch began with a backbreaking, over-the-top cover of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (complete with robo-model musicians on the video screen), but what stood out the most was Turner tapping her heel to keep the beat – lest we forget, before she was diva, superstar, icon, Turner was a musician first, and a damn good one. Done up like Steve Winwood on steroids, “Simply the Best” brought little argument.

What was left? Well, “Proud Mary.” In Houston, we never, ever do anything nice and easy. We always do it nice… and rough. This was no different – the Little Richard piano toward the end may not have been necessary, but it was certainly welcome, and one of the silver-hairs around Aftermath chose this song to spark up some potent ganja. It was “Proud Mary,” everyone was on their feet, and the band never pumped any more ‘tane all night than those five or so minutes of paddlewheeling rapture.

Except, perhaps, for lone encore “Nutbush City Limits.” Behind barreling Elton John piano and sumptuous Stax/Volt horns, Turner basked in the furiously clapping crowd’s adulation on a cantilevered arm roving overhead. For a supercharged rock ‘n’ soul evening, the Stones themselves couldn’t have done any better. Simply stunning – and yes, simply the best. – Chris Gray

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray