Lionel Richie’s career renaissance as enthusiastic, encouraging judge on ABC’s reboot of American Idol may be earning him a fresh legion of younger fans, but his heartfelt and humorous comments throughout a hit-filled 95 minute romp at the Hollywood Bowl pretty much acknowledged the reality that his audience is mostly boomers looking for immersion in sweet funk and romance filled nostalgia.
Early on in his exuberant set – in fact, immediately after the master balladeer reminded us he and his rock/soul band can jam too on the opening number “Running With The Night” – he spoke of his “200 years of being in the business” and the small possibility that some folks may be seeing him for the first time. Dressed in a glittery red jacket with “Hello,” the name of his signature song and this summer tour, shimmering on the back, he also reveled in the reality that after millions of radio plays and streams, perhaps we the fans know his songs as well if not better than he does. “Those of you who have not seen me before have probably come to hear me sing,” he smiled. “That’s not gonna happen.”
Richie tested this out playfully during a multitude of baby making piano driven classics, from “Penny Lover” and “Stuck on You” to “Hello” – all from his Grammy winning 1984 album Can’t Slow Down – by letting the audience fill in numerous lines. And of course, “We Are The World,” the all-star classic penned by Richie and Michael Jackson that raised over $63 million (equivalent to $144 million today) for humanitarian aid in Africa and the US, is one of the world’s best known singalongs, and the Bowl crowd was all too happy to show the world once again the unifying power of music. Like any socially conscious song by Marvin Gaye, “We Are The World” rings as powerfully now as it did then and is perhaps even more sorely needed in these uniquely troubled times.
Richie used the magical singalong effect to comically create one of the evening’s most memorable and humorous moments. Lamenting the fact that he has asked Diana Ross to join him onstage to sing their #1 duet “Endless Love” to no avail for 35 years, he let the anticipation build…and build. He asked if Ross was in the house, and when once again she was a no show, he told the ladies in the crowd that they would have to fill in her lines – and they did so quite admirably. Though he enjoyed egging them on lyric by lyric, he concluded the moment by joking “That was a disaster.”
Clearly, no one in the crowd agreed, but to compensate, Richie shifted gears and took us back to his days before he became a master balladeer, as a classic funk proprietor with the Commodores. As sweet as it was to hear him run through his solo era-ballads like “Say You, Say Me” and “Truly,” and the gorgeous, sweeping fun to hum along with ballads from his time with his original band (“Easy,” “Sail On,” “Three Times a Lady”), the most compelling part of the singer’s show was his brilliant choice to follow the “Endless Love” drama with a scorching, brass filled jam through one of the 70’s ultimate dance/funk joints, “Brick House.”
Richie and three of his band members created a lively impromptu dance revue, prowling the stage as colorful, psychedelic images and key phrases from the song popped on the screen behind them. To keep the mid-70’s funky trip flowing, he turned it into a spirited mashup with the Ohio Players’ “Fire.” Even in the open-air environment, everyone felt like “Dancing on the Ceiling” again.
Peppering the set with “Brick House,” “Just To Be Close To You” and another feisty singalong “Lady You Bring Me Up” was Richie’s way of saying, “If you only know my solo stuff, let me take you back and show you where this all started.” Along the way, he expressed gratitude and amazement that after those 200 years, “the enthusiasm is still there like when the songs were new. On behalf of the Commodores and myself, it’s been an amazing ride.”
His vibrant, off the charts encore of his Commodores meets Caribbean trademark island/funk solo smash “All Night Long (All Night),” complete with fireworks blasting behind the shell as only the Bowl can do, offered multiple levels of amazing (or “outrageous,” as he used to say when he won awards back in the day). During a tough, tragic week in America, it reminded us how important music is as a healing, energizing force for change and escape from life’s harsh realities. And for those of us old enough to remember – and from the demographic of the audience, that’s probably everyone in attendance, except for the kids they brought along – the performance brought back misty, spirited memories of a moment when the singer used “All Night Long” as a celebratory, unifying moment at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Flashing back to what now seems like a more innocent time in our global history, it was hard not to feel a bit wistful for a moment, even if we were all up on our feet, grooving along and dancing like there was no ceiling in sight.