Friday Night: Smokey Robinson at Jones Hall

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Smokey Robinson Jones Hall February 1, 2013

"You short circuit all my nerves/ Promising electric things/ You touch me, and suddenly there's rainbow rings/ Quiet storm"

-- Smokey Robinson, "Quiet Storm"

Legends do it better. Only Smokey Robinson -- singer, septuagenarian, shaper of the equally legendary Motown Records and songwriter hailed by Bob Dylan himself as America's "greatest living poet" -- would have the musical foresight to rearrange a typical Friday-night concert into a night at the orchestra.

On second thought, perhaps it's a little limiting to label it as such. Robinson's concert had been billed as a performance with the Houston Symphony, so it was surprising to see the orchestra play second fiddle -- or more appropriately, second violin -- to the singer's own six-piece band of electric guitarists, pianists, saxophonist/flutist and drummer.

To that, add three background dancers and a go-go dance duo, whose repeat entrances and exits yielded increasingly fewer returns as the night wore on. In actuality, what the Symphony offered was accompaniment, giving decorative string plucks here and there under the debut direction of Sarah Hicks, while the band poured out a massive wave of sound that doused the audience and drowned Robinson's famously soft tenor on opening hits "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Going to a Go-Go."

But then all was quiet. With no other noise but a wild flute conveying the start of "Quiet Storm," Robinson's airy voice could finally be fully appreciated.

He could also teach a Rice University class on Crooning 101, as "Ooh Baby Baby" proved. Starting with a breathy opener, followed by five straight concluding minutes of "oohs" and "aahs" that forced "mmms" and "hmms" out of the audience, Robinson brought on a standing ovation.

"We should've done that first," he said to the breathless crowd.

Per legend requirements, Robinson performed all the standard hits: "I Second That Emotion," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "The Tears of a Clown," and a Temptations medley including the group's first "international smash hit," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," which got even the symphony members to tap their toes, despite their best efforts to remain professional. The popularity of "My Girl" with the crowd prompted an audience-sung reprise; Robinson anointed them the "Jones Hall Choir."

A surprising turn came during Robinson's rousing cover of Norah Jones' debut single, "Don't Know Why," in which the Motown man turned a young girl's heartbreak opus into a soulful male point-of-view; the way he wrapped his voice around those minor chords, turning them upside down, was an unforgettable experience and exactly why the world designates someone like him with the status of legend.

It was more surprising to hear this halfway through the concert:

"Much to our regret, the Houston Symphony has to leave us," Robinson said. Left alone with his band, he performed songs from his current two albums: Timeless Love and Time Flies When You're Having Fun.

Have fun he did.

Including hits "Tracks of My Tears" and "Crusin' Together" into the latter part of the concert, Robinson also injected a blush-inducing new track from his Time Flies album: the double entendre-overdosing tune, "That Place," "deep down inside you."

Singing wasn't the only "fun" thing Robinson did that night. Determined to prove that the 70-year-old still hasn't lost his boyish charm, he told campfire stories, (one involved another Motown legend, Stevie Wonder, whom Robinson has renamed Wonder-"ful," and his driving abilities) gyrated hard and laughed longer than many of his musical peers -- older and younger.

"We came to have fun!" Robinson shouted. "We came to have a good time! We came to get close."


Personal Bias: America's "greatest living poet" has still got it.

The Crowd: A mature, settled crowd.

Overheard In the Crowd: "You sittin' next to me? I'm the luckiest man in the world; I've got two pretty girls sitting on both sides of me!"

Random Notebook Dump: Nothing random to be said. Robinson's concert was seamless.

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