Gladys Knight At The Rocksino
November 11th, 2018
I think I can safely say that the word "legend" is an overused word in our popular lexicon. "Genius" and "amazing" are also two words that have been used to describe so many things that are neither genius or amazing. In the last few decades they've become the hyperbolic substitutes for ordinary, every day occurrences. For instance, Kanye West is neither a genius or amazing. See what I'm getting at?
Well, Saturday night saw a legend return to Northeast Ohio minus, unfortunately, the backup band that accompanied her on her amazing journey through the last fifty-plus years of her career. Made famous by Motown Records, Gladys Knight took the nearly-sold out Hard Rock Rocksino crowd through her tenure in the music business. Supported by a nine-piece outfit, including three backup vocalists, the 74-year old Atlanta-born songstress took to the stage sporting her ever-present, million-watt smile. Offering a fourteen-tune set, she projected a motif of "love" throughout the evening. Whether it was the pursuit of love, its loss, or being smack-dab in the middle of it, Knight mentioned the concept several times through the ninety-minute show.
Known as the lead singer for The Pips, the members of her backup band (and, largely, members of her immediate family) have long since retired and been replaced by a dynamic set of younger musicians. She joked, while dueting on "If I Were Your Woman" with a much, much younger man, that she couldn't quite sell the May-December thing anymore. But the youth didn't make her appear older; if anything it showed how timeless both her voice and the songs she offered were. And that voice of hers? She sounded fantastic; sporting an uncanny ability to hit whatever higher notes the tunes required, even if she had to contort her face into a maniacal expression now and then.
One thing that Ms. Knight has always been able to do, effortlessly, is to take a song either written for someone else or attached closely to a certain artist and make it her own. "Memories," from the 1973 film The Way We Were, has been linked to Barbra Streisand since the film and song were released. Knight, unafraid of doing a possible injustice to such an iconic tune, took it and made it her own. Her inflection and phrasing, although different than what we've been used to hearing on the Streisand version, was fantastic.
Perhaps the highlight of the night (outside, of course, her encore rendition of "Midnight Train to Georgia) was a snappy cover of the Gershwin Brothers' "Someone To Watch Over Me." Her phrasing and syncopation took the tune into a new direction; it was a refreshing version of a ballad that's been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Susan Boyle.
Stopping for a momentary breather, Knight told a backstory on the band's early success: Her new producer was struggling to get The Pips on the charts. Approaching Ms. Knight and the band in 1967, he excitedly said he had a song that they had to record immediately. They got to Motown's most prestigious recording studio, Studio A, and kicked out Motown's most famous star to lay down the record. With a wink and a smile, she relayed that The Pips booted Smokey Robinson out of the studio so they could cut "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." Pre-dating the more well-known Marvin Gaye version (and the CCR cover in 1971), she said that her version was the best-selling single of 1967.
Showing a versatility and a willingness to move a bit out of her vocal wheelhouse, Ms. Knight offered a few contemporary covers. Offering a wispy retelling of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" early in the set, she then surprised the audience with a rendition of Sam Smith's "Stay With Me."
Saving the tune that everyone was waiting to hear, the band encored with "Midnight Train to Georgia." Not leaving the stage before the final song, Ms. Knight introduced the cadre she had assembled to replace The Pips during the song. Towards the end of the last verse, she flashed that beaming mega-watter of a smile, and bid us all goodnight.
And with that, an amazing show came to an end. Not genius, perhaps, but pretty damn close. Legendary?
Photos and Review by Brian M. Lumley