News Column

Concert Review: Lionel Richie at FedExForum

June 19, 2014

By Chris Herrington, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.



June 19--"We have been together for a very long time," Lionel Richie said shortly after taking the stage at FedExForum on Wednesday night.

For his "All the Hits, All Night Long" tour, the soon-to-be-65-year-old crooner gave the people what they wanted, drawing 10 of the 23 songs in his set from his '70s-era funk band the Commodores and 11 more from his first three blockbuster solo albums. With an Ohio Players cover ("Fire") and the Michael Jackson encore co-write "We Are the World" (as always, but more so, the circumstances of the recording more compelling than the song) topping off the setlist, Richie didn't play a single song that post-dated 1986.

There were two types of people in the crowd, he said at one point: those who were with him from the beginning and those who tell him, "My (parents) played your songs around the house when I was growing up." And he gifted both with the hits, unfiltered, from an opening "Penny Lover" to a regular-set-closing "All Night Long."

Setlist

Penny Lover

Easy

Ballerina Girl

You Are

Truly

Running With the Night

Still

Oh No

Stuck on You

Dancing on the Ceiling

Three Times a Lady

Sail On

Fancy Dancer

Sweet Love

Lady (You Bring Me Up)

Just to Be Close to You

Endless Love

Say You Say Me

Brickhouse/Fire

Hello

All Night Long

Encore:

We Are the World

Some of those hits ("Ballerina Girl," "Running With the Night," some of the more funk-based Commodores songs) sound a little creaky these days, but others ("Easy," "You Are, "Stuck on You") sound inevitable by the time they arrive at their crowd-pleasing choruses.

Richie gamely played some uptempo numbers, with "Dancing on the Ceiling" still sounding less silly than it should and "Brick House" getting people on their feet, but he's always been at his best as a balladeer, and that's more true than ever as he heads towards what we now quaintly refer to as retirement age.

If the vocal expression of soulful strength is the common tongue of pop music, that's also the source of Richie's cross-genre, cross-generational appeal. It's how a onetime '70s funk-band singer now finds himself (on the recent Tuskegee) making a successful comeback bid via duets with country stars.

Richie made occasional reference to both his age and that of his core fan base, as well as to his surroundings.

"I have to admit, I haven't seen dancing like that since 1984," he said after "Dancing on the Ceiling," a reference to his previous Memphis concert appearance, at the Mid-South Coliseum.

He said he knew he was back in the South when he arrived in town and the first native to greet him said, "Welcome to Memphis, Ly-nell."

The presentation was appropriately simple for an arena concert, with one big video board behind the stage and a band of guitar-bass-drums-keyboard augmented by a sidekick who alternated between saxophone and harmonica and, occasionally, Richie himself on piano.

With this relatively unadorned setting spiked with some gently corny between-song banter, the mood was more Jay Leno than Jimmy Fallon, and appropriately so.

Richie's best ballads are memorable, but so detail-free and so generalized that everyone can put themselves into them. This can be both a weakness and a strength, but the universal appeal has worked to Richie's commercial advantage.

But still, Richie's music is more about the singer than the songs, and Richie's warm sandpaper tenor remains in fine shape.

Opening Act: CeeLo performed an hour-long set, mixing lesser-known originals and covers (Sister Sledge's "We Are Family") before closing with his two big hits, the Gnarls Barkley blockbuster oddity "Crazy" (the heavier live version losing track of the song's indelible groove) and "F -- k You" ("This next song is the one that made me rich and famous"), where he declined to sing the title refrain, leaving it up to the audience. He's a professional celebrity now, and his singing has been good for his bank account, but I miss his superior rapping skills. (Check here, batting leadoff on this Outkast classic.)

Arena Action: Even more than his boatload of hits or his still mostly immaculate voice, the most impressive thing about Richie's concert may have been his crowd. Not the size of it: The terrace level at FedExForum was blocked out, reducing the arena capacity roughly by half, and even then the building seemed only about 80 percent full. But the composition: Young and (do we have to say) old. Black and white. While it skewed to the latter on both counts, this was an unusually diverse concert audience, ages ranging mostly from 30 to 70 (though I saw some beyond that range on either end) and with a racial mix that evoked that of FedExForum's primary tenant. Could anyone else in pop music draw quite this kind of audience?

Directly in front of me was a prime example of the multigenerational fandom Richie cited: 60-year-old Dede Robinson, there with her daughter, Michelle. "I've waited 60 years for this," Dede proclaimed as she took her seat, telling me that her husband had gotten her tickets for their 40th anniversary but declined to go himself, instead giving his seat to their Lionel Richie-loving daughter.

Random Notebook Fodder: Overheard at 9:10 p.m., when Richie was 10 minutes late and still 10 minutes from taking the stage: "Everything he's ever sung is awesome, but I ain't gonna wait all night for him." Dude, Lionel, these folks need to get to bed.

Personal Bias: I don't own any Lionel Richie albums, though I know all the hits well. I was one of those younger listeners Richie cited, who remember his records being played around the house growing up. In the early '80s, on the family turntable, as on so many family turntables around America then, there were dueling blockbusters: I played Michael Jackson's Thriller while my dad was more apt to play Lionel Richie or Can't Slow Down.

___

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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Source: Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)


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