Smokey Robinson Arena Theatre May 13, 2011
If William "Smokey" Robinson wasn't America's poet laureate of love, he would have thrived in a number of other fields.
Smokey would make a solid con man, for instance. Friday night at Arena Theatre, he kicked off his show with a deceptively shaky performance of "Going To a Go-Go," followed by a deceptively shaky performance of "I Second That Emotion." What the packed crowd didn't realize was that he was simply warming up his vocals with the Motown hits.
It was as if the stiff start was his way of saying to us, "Yes, I know you have preconceived notions about this 71-year old guy. I know you expect my voice to crack the entire night, and that's fine, really. But just to let you know, you're now in for a wild ride. Starting with the next song and for the next 124 minutes, I'm going to do things that will shatter all your misconceptions about me."
And who are you to argue with the man who wrote "My Girl," energized Motown, and styled an entire genre?
With his first three songs out of the way, Smokey ripped his tie loose and gave his buttery-smooth voice room to breathe. Now perfectly warmed up and eager to impress, he plunged into a billowing rendition of "Ooh Baby Baby" so smooth it had the ladies screaming and the fellas entranced. After he was done belting out those silky smooth notes, a thunderous ovation filled the arena and continued for a while.
"Well, I guess that's it," Smokey teased. "We should have played that one first."
If he ever tires of making panty-dropping music, Smokey should consider a career as a stand-up comedian or a musical raconteur. In between songs, he entertained the Arena Place crowd with yarns about the good ol' Motown Days.
"Back then," he said," you could see The Temptations, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, and The Miracles for $1.50. I don't think we have that anymore."
He was with Motown Records from the beginning, so he had plenty of tales about The Temps and Berry and Marvin and Stevie. Especially Stevie. Smokey recalled a "true story" about Stevie Wonder pitching him a song idea at a party. So eager was Stevie to get started on the song that he supposedly offered to drive Smokey to the studio immediately.
"I declined," joked Smokey, "He drives much too fast for me, sometimes while texting." The crowd exploded in laughter.
Even if he didn't have the most distinctive falsetto in music, Smokey could have easily made a full-time living from songwriting. After all, he penned a ton of Top 40 hits for various Motown acts, including The Temptations' wildly cherished gem "My Girl."
As a joyous reminder of his influence, Smokey Robinson used a portion of his set to pay tribute to Smokey Robinson, with "My Girl," "The Way You Do The Things You Do," and "Get Ready."
"I'm a fan of songwriters," he announced to the crowd. "I follow the careers of songwriters."
One in particular had captured Smokey's attention: Jesse Harris, author of "Don't Know Why," the 1999 jazz tune later popularized by Norah Jones. Robinson covered "Don't Know Why" on his 2009 album, Time Flies When You're Having Fun and Friday night brought it to life in a pitch-perfect delivery.
The performance kicked off a series of slower jazz grooves that were just as magnificent as his R&B tunes. The slower songs that were supposed to expose his vulnerabilities actually affirmed his versatility. The man is truly a multifaceted musical genius.
Regardless of his songwriting, charisma, and wit, the one thing that still defines Smokey Robinson is that intoxicatingly smooth falsetto. He conjures MJ-like high notes in one second and Norah Jones-like tenor in the next.
As the evening wore on, his voice grew stronger. Robinson electrified the Arena with his pleading, soaring vocals amid cries of "Smokaayyy!" and "Sang it, baby!"
At some point, we asked the person next to us to guess how long had passed. "30 minutes?" No, we had actually been there a full hour. "Time flies when you're having fun," Smokey reminded us, before showcasing a few songs from his last solo album.
That statement truly encapsulates the theme of Robinson's career. The septuagenarian exemplified it all night by working the stage without a care in the world. He was occasionally flanked by two gorgeous female dancers, who disappeared and reappeared in different outfits. He had moves for days, at one point imitating Michael Jackson's crotch-grab to the crowd's merriment. We see a Dancing With the Stars cameo in his future.
Smokey is a throwback performer. He comes from an era when it wasn't enough to sing beautifully. You also had to engage and emote in a theatrical, at times ridiculous, manner.
"Don't it feel good?" he queried towards the end of the show. It sure as hell did.
Seventy-one years, 50 of them spent grinding in the music business, yet Smokey Robinson hasn't lost a thing. He hasn't lost a step. He hasn't lost his passion. He certainly hasn't lost his latte-soaked falsetto. Friday night, he did everything but juggle flaming clubs.
And just when you thought he was spent, he closed the show with a 16-minute chant-and-response audience participation of "Cruisin'." Two hours and 20 songs later, we stood there waiting for more action, waiting for Smokey to juggle fire.
The Crowd: Old enough to remember 8-tracks, hip enough to tweet about being old enough to remember 8-tracks.
Overheard In the Crowd: "You look like you're living a stress-free life."
Random Notebook Dump: Someone requested "I Second That Emotion" during the encore set, effectively announcing to the crowd that he was late to the show.
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Going to a Go-Go I Second That Emotion You've Really Got a Hold on Me Quiet Storm Ooh Baby Baby The Way You Do the Things You Do Get Ready My Girl Tears of a Clown Don't Know Why Fly Me to the Moon Being With You Time Flies Love Bath That Place Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage Just to See Her The Tracks of My Tears Cruisin'