“Coming Out” just a few weeks after the passing of Olivia Newton-John, Diana Ross’ first of two late August full scale extravaganzas at the Hollywood Bowl couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With so many icons of the 70s and 80s era departing in recent years, it’s comforting, uplifting and inspiring to be reminded that a few legends are not only still with us, but still sound fantastic, perform energetically and entertain with the same enthusiasm and excitement as they did back in their heydays.
Ms. Ross did just that and more, charming and regaling the sold out crowd with a mostly quick paced frolic through the multiple phases of her career, from her early years with The Supremes through her movie tunes, disco jams, et al – complete with her trademark costume changes. Throughout the 90 minute show, she peacocked with a whirlwind of fashionable colors, changing from orange to yellow, to black (appropriately for her dreamy and seductive Lady Sings the Blues number “Don’t Explain”) to white to glittery silver – four (count ‘em!) attire shifts in record time as her large ensemble created fun instrumental extensions of select songs
In what can only be considered another wonderful musical silver lining to the pandemic, Ms. Ross used her down time productively during the break from performing, co-writing and co-producing (with a large cast of creatives, including the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra) Thank You, a critically acclaimed collection that marked her first studio album in 15 years and first with original material since 1999. The weekend Bowl shows were the kickoff to an eight city tour and a month of concerts culminating in a weeklong residency at the Encore in Las Vegas.
There’s always an element of risk, and potential audience drift, when an artist with a decades long catalog sacrifices familiar hits to introduce tunes from a new album, but she brought bold confidence, energy, dazzling production values and grand showmanship to Thank You’s two universal minded anthems (“Tomorrow,” “If The World Just Danced”) whose relevant messages were truly worth hearing and grooving to at this juncture in history. The moment she dedicated a third song from that project, the heartfelt ballad “Beautiful Love” to her son Evan (on his birthday) was truly her most personal, the emotional centerpiece of her otherwise hits-driven set.
It’s wonderful that over five decades since she launched her solo career with a the impactful unity theme “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” she’s still at her best when thinking about using music to make the world a more livable, hopeful place. Because of that latter song’s significance as a signature of her catalog, the lively audience participation sing-a-long included a sea of thousands of fans creating an intense, hypnotic constellation of cell phone lights – rivaling the light saber synergy of John Williams’ annual Bowl shows.
Backed by a small but powerful group of soulful backing singers, a large ensemble of musicians including a four piece horn section and lightning paced backdrop imagery full of messages of gratitude and retro images from throughout her career, Ms. Ross devoted the bulk of her set to the hits everyone came to hear. The freewheeling fun began with the buoyant funk of “I’m Coming Out” and her effervescent cover of “More Today Than Yesterday” before reigning Supreme with the groovin’ and heavily vocal textured romps through songs whose hooks are part of our collective DNA, including “Baby Love,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Love Child,” whose poignancy evolved into a Latin romp featuring a lively piano vamp, sizzling brass and fiery percussion.
Her first costume change brought a shift in gears to her disco era hits “The Boss,” “It’s My House” and some wild audience participation going round and round on “Upside Down.” After breaking up the thumping beats with “Reach Out and Touch,” she headed back to the dance floor with her mystical disco classic “Love Hangover” and a sizzling vocal ensemble spin through The Wiz’s “Ease on Down The Road” which surely made everyone miss Michael Jackson even more so close to his birthday. Ms. Ross then brought us deeper into the 80s with her whimsical spin on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”
Her devoted audience probably didn’t notice and could have cared less, but the only glitch in the show was her ongoing frustration with the sound, including her not being able to hear her band to coordinate her vocals properly. Though she verbalized this many times, this wasn’t an issue as far as the crowd was concerned until she eased into her signature mid-70s ballad “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To),” whose lyrics she sang only sporadically and not at full volume, interrupted by a visit to the sound guy on the side of the stage. Considering the importance of this song to so many who love her, it’s too bad she didn’t address this during a less crucial and intimate number. All was forgiven a moment later when she and her crew launched into her showstopper “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” whose combination of soaring wordless vocals, talk sing and euphoric climax offered the pure timeless joy it always has.
Yes, Ms. Ross, this one still speaks to us because we fans have climbed many mountains with you and are grateful for all energy, hard work, tireless entertaining, love and gratitude you have brought to our lives. So grand were these feelings that it probably didn’t puzzle anyone why she would close the show with another disco anthem that was popularized by someone else. But when she sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” we got what she was saying. Having survived decades in this business, she’s still here to share the music with us – and hopefully will be for a long time. In light of that, we’re the ones who should be saying and singing “Thank you!”