Gladys Knight + Polly Gibbons, Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham 3/7/16
Ms Gladys has a real license to thrill tonight…. It was at least 15 years since I saw Gladys Knight in concert and was in awe of her talents then, but tonight she topped that by far.
Red hot, on fire, her vocal prowess simply stunning. This was not just a concert, this was an experience. The Gladys Knight experience. I am STILL staggered at just how mighty her voice is at 72-years-young.
Seven time Grammy winner Gladys's influence has been felt in the world of R & B and soul every decade since she first released 'Miss Gladys Knight' in 1978 on the Buddha label, and before that from ’66 when she was on Motown. Gladys Maria Knight born on the 28th of May 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia, she’s been writing, recording and performing for 64 years – making her professional debut back in 1953. At just seven, Gladys won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV talent contest in 1952. A year later she formed a group with her brother, sister and cousins, christened The Pips and they signed to Motown in 1966. Leaving Mr Gordy’s label in 1973 for Buddha Records and monster hit “Midnight Train to Georgia”.
A singer’s singer, just four dates of this rare UK trip – Royal Albert Hall, London, Nottingham, Leeds Arena and Edinburgh. A sold out 2,500 crowd in Nottingham in for a treat. Aptly named The Royal Concert Hall, this was a Royal visit. The Empress of Soul was in town and there was a real buzz of excitement in the air. I have had the honour and privilege of seeing Ms Aretha Franklin in a 500 capacity venue in Milwaukee and meeting her backstage afterwards, and I have to say, her voice had suffered over the years and she’d lost a fair chunk of her range. But not so with Ms Knight.
Special guest on these dates was excellent UK singer-songwriter Ms Polly Gibbons. I’ve seen you somewhere before, haven’t I? Yes, exactly seven nights ago in Birmingham, opening for another US legend, George Benson on his tour. Very good she was too, but tonight she had a different band behind her to the Benson set, a lot more chemistry between her and the musicians. Ronnie Scotts club resident, the excellent James Pearson on piano, Chris Dodd on bass, Saleem Raman on drums and Nigel Price on guitar. Polly's vocals were firing on all cylinders tonight too. A really powerful performance, lots of light and shade in the material giving her the opportunity to show off her immaculate control, impressive range and above all else, her soul chops. To label Polly a jazz singer, would be doing her a disservice. She does that genre proud, but at the same time she is a born soul singer. Put the two together and you have something, or rather someone very special. Well, you have Suffolk-born Polly Gibbons.
She spends about four times a year in the USA where her record label is based, and tells me she is off there again soon for a US tour and then to begin recording her new album in September in L.A. Her last one, 2013’s "Many Faces Of Love," really was stunning and I still spin it at home regularly. Polly co-wrote her 2006 debut album, “What’s The Real Reason” with UK star soul Ola Onabule, who also produced it on his label, Rugged Ram Records. A jazz, soul and hip hop affair. So to catch her live once was a treat, twice in a week meant my Christmas and birthday came early! She is keeping great company with the likes of George and Gladys, and that is no surprise. She’s a class act. Go see her, buy her records, and thank me later….
The main star of tonight; Gladys looked a million dollars. Slim, perfect hair, subtle makeup, black trousers under a “little black dress” with see through arms and sparkly stones around the sleeves and chest area, blingy hoop earrings and a huge diamond ring on her right hand, the one with the microphone in it. She’s worth a lot more than a million dollars in fact; her current net worth estimated at $28m. A shrewd businesswoman as well as a killer singer, songwriter and performer. Those seasons in Vegas must pay well. But that amazing voice of hers and the joy she has brings to millions around the world for many decades; truly priceless.
Back around 2000 she made me cry. Her voice and one particular song, “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” that was it; I was gone. But men and women around me were in the same state, so I didn’t feel so silly. The next time that happened to me, was in the Potowami Casino in Milwaukee and their live concert venue that holds just 500 people. Another female soul singer sat at the Steinway singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” just her and the piano. I was a wreck - along with most of the other 499 people there that night to see Ms Aretha Franklin.
That’s the thing; singers like Aretha and Gladys give it their all for every show, every night. They do not hold back and they connect emotionally with every song. Even a bad night for them is a fantastic night for their audience. Aretha had lost some of her range and dropped a few big songs because of that, but that really did not matter, because she is Aretha Franklin. The woman never travels abroad as she hates flying, so that would be the only chance in my lifetime to see her. Gladys is different, because at 72 she still has ALL of her range, all of her tone and sounds as good today as she did in the 1960s and 1970s. It is remarkable.
Gladys hits the nail on the head when she tells us that we are losing the art of communication, and she has told people, “Don’t you text me no more. They send little faces and LOL. I asked people; what is LOL?” She then launched into “Part Time Love,” a stunning vocal.
Her version of “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me,” tonight was magnificent. “I have sung this song at least a thousand times,” she told us.” Probably as good as this every time, too. The stage subtly set with two giant candelabras and “candles” flickering in low light, and soft blue lighting on a backdrop setting the tone.
No Pips tonight. Well, in the audience participation towards the end of her set, we were her Pips. The four young backing singers, two boys, two girls were absolutely brilliant. Often sat on high stools, positioned to the far side of the stage on the left as you look at it, so on Gladys’ right. They avoided any OTT slick dance moves a la The Pips for all but one song, focused on the harmonies. Faultless vocals, just like their boss.
But they get their moment to shine and take centre stage just before the final section of the night. Gladys telling us that she was asked by them if she could pay tribute to the late and the great Prince, and Ms Knight agreed that would be a good idea, but for them to take the lead vocals. She stands mostly at the back behind them, and grins broadly like a Cheshire cat as she dances and sings backing vocals to her backing vocalists! Clearly proud of her “children” and loving every second. They really are awesome on this medley of Prince hits, too. The stage is full of great musicians and singers, in fact. The four back up singers, two keyboard players (one male and one female), drummer, bassist and guitarist. Everyone smartly attired in black and white.
After 1974’s “You’re The Best Thing,” comes a hit from today and the UK’s own Sam Smith; and a fine version of, “Stay With Me.” Gladys talks about her “great young band” and how “I try to teach them”, “I’m a mamma and I have my children here with me.” She talks of how they stunned her in rehearsals with their talents, and how they bring her ideas. “I tell them, keep it clean,” she jokes. Then they kick into, “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” a sassy vocal with high pitch squeals from Gladys. It’s funky and so damn soulful. An over-excited punter in “The God’s,” screams out “We love you Gladys,” and she shouts back, “I heard that. I love you too.” Out come the stools front of stage and she is joined by one of the guys from the backing singers, to duet on “Flowers,” her back turned to him while he delivers his verses, a little bit of acting goin’ on here. He has a stunning voice. The song blends into a duet of, “If I Were Your Woman,” and at this point I want to mention the unsung heroes of this show; the guys and gals doing the sound and lighting, adding so much value to the experience. You gotta be able to properly hear that amazing voice and you gotta be able to see the whites of the eyes of this amazing performer. She is a master of the art of stage craft. She makes direct eye contact with many people in the audience when she is speaking, and when she is singing, often glancing up at the balconies.
It often feels like she is singing and speaking just to you, and this is an intimate front room and not a large theatre venue in the Midlands. Her smiles sincere and evidence if needed, that she loves what she does and is there to entertain with her gift. A real pro who learned the art of stage craft as a young lady and could write a dozen books on it. Someone who at 72 and with a good few bob in the bank really does not need to schlep across the pond to work, but clearly loves to do so.
So many hits songs, such a long career, impossible to fit ‘em all in to one evening; so no “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” this evening for instance, a Top 10 UK chart hit for Gladys in 1972 on Tamla Motown. But loads more we do hear. “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind,” next, her duet partner back with his three pals for this one. Then a showstopper moment…..The lights go down on stage, Gladys the only person seen, her dress sparkling in the spotlight. The mood changes; the dark and mysterious intro to a song we instantly recognise strikes up, search lights dart across the stage and the shivers shoot up and down the spine. “Licence To Kill,” the theme tune to the blockbuster 1989 James Bond movie of the same name. A brilliant song written by Narada Michael Walden, Jeffrey Cohen, and Walter Afanasieff, and a hand in glove fit for Gladys Knight’s vocal skills.
When she sings the chorus; “Got a license to kill, and you know I'm going straight for your heart, got a license to kill, anyone who tries to tear us apart, license to kill,” she sells that song as though it was the first time she had sung it, not the umpteenth. As fresh as it sounded 27 years ago. After that sizzling moment, things cool down in temperature as Gladys tells how much she loves jazz; “That music touches my heart,” and proceeds to prove yet again how versatile her voice is; sat on a stool to deliver a sheer vocal master class on a medley of jazz standards. Referencing Lena Horne as the singer she first heard sing the first song in the medley; the blues standard “Stormy Monday.” Some brilliant jazz licks on the Steinway from the guy on keyboards.
The gentle ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me,” probably some of the best vocals I will ever hear in a lifetime. A song first sung in 1926 in the film “Oh, Kay,” written by George and Ira Gershwin and first sung by Gertrude Lawrence. Could have heard a pin drop tonight, Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall crammed full with 2,500 Gladys fans paying premium prices for tickets.
I get the feeling she treats anyone who works for her with huge respect and is never going to be accused of throwing a Diva tantrum. Her tour manager Larry has been with her for 30 years, starting his career working with the great Frankie Beverly and Maze, before joining Ms Knight’s team and staying put for three decades.
The next song brings the house down, and on her last perfect note she gets the first of a few standing ovations, deservedly too. Gladys becomes genuinely tearful at the reaction. Not showbiz tears either. “The Way We Were,” a cover of Barbara Streisand’s huge hit from the movie of the same name in 1973, later a hit for Gladys and her Pips in 1980. How do you follow that? With the Grammy-winning “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye),” that’s how. Sat on a stool, as are her four backing singers behind her. Standing ovation # 2.She changes the set list slightly now, to bring one of he biggest songs up from the scheduled last but one slot. “Midnight Train To Georgia.” “I got no Pips up here right now, so I need you to be my Pips.” She adds: “I’m having a ball,” which wins loud cheers. Vocally as strong as though she recorded it yesterday and not some 43 years ago. Now for a Motown magic moment, after she tells the story of how Marvin Gaye came along a year after her and the Pips covered the timeless “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and they had a hit with it in 1967, Motown’s biggest selling single of that year. Tonight’s version is as funky as heck, the audience clapping along as though we are at the Apollo, Harlem. “They don’t write ‘em like this any more, she tells us.” Damn right they don’t lady. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong we salute you.
“Big brother Marvin stole it the next year, 1968,” Gladys told us, tongue firmly in cheek. “We worked together a lot and had a lot of audience participation, so if you feel like it, join the party.” She shows us what she wants from us, in the Grapevine song: “Repeat after me, ‘Ahh haaa, hey hey,” and she claps in time. We follow her lead and it don’t sound half bad. “You know how to party,” she remarks.
Back in 2009, Gladys came here to do her farewell to the UK tour, with Tito Jackson and Dionne Warwick as her guests and she appeared on “Later…with Jools Holland.” So her 2016 whistle-stop four shows were a rare chance to catch her in the act over here since then.
She talks about missing Prince, and brings on her four singers to take charge of the tribute to him, telling us they came to her and said we lost one of our icons, asking to pay tribute to him. What a humble and generous gesture to allow backing singers to take over a chunk of your show and take the spotlight. The music kicks in to “Lets Go Crazy,” and that is the cue for us to get on our feet in an all-seated venue and shake that ass. The singers turn in some slick dance moves, none of them even born when The Pips were strutting their stuff, and each takes turns to sing lead. “When Doves Cry,” actually sounded just like Prince. The four part harmonies awesome and Gladys knew it, beaming smiles all the way.
You know what; I did not see one iPhone or iPad up in the air tonight. The notices were out to say no cameras or recording, but they are usually ignored. But tonight total respect for Ms Knight and it made a rare change to see a show without having to look over or around bloody screens. I take photos in the first three songs when I’m on an official photo pass, and then put the camera gear away to watch the rest of the show to review it.
“Diamonds & Pearls,” was wonderful, the band in sparkling form behind five amazing singers. But the finale of this tribute was a showstopper, of course; “Purple Rain.” Gladys at the back, hand on the candelabra, singing lead at the start of the song, the audience joining in the chorus. Shivers down the spine time. Bass and drums locked in tight and adding massive value to the Prince section of the night. While the guitarist steps to the front of the stage for his solo, Gladys and the four singers are in a line holding hands ready for the third of the standing ovations. Now just before 10pm and she came on a fraction before 8.30pm, she introduces her band, telling us this was not just about her.
“Mum and dad thought I could sing a little bit, so they prayed about it. I serve HIM,” she told us, before taking us all us to church with what the printed set list calls, “Worship Medley.” Some fine, fine gospel and perfect five-piece harmonies on “Halleluiah.” “It’s all about love you know, “she tells us as she and her singers join hands and step forward for their final bow to close just over 90 minutes of sheer joy. I have read criticism of Gladys ending her set with “a hymn” from one music critic recently, saying it may work in the USA to go down the religious route, but not here. Rubbish. Not one single person in that 2,500 strong audience had an issue with it, far from it. Great music is great music, no matter the topic or sentiment. Her patter is not schmaltzy or OTT Vegas cabaret style either. It is sincere and warm. The music may well be mostly from yesterday, but this is far from the nostalgia circuit.
This is timeless music, a right regal affair, an opportunity to witness a true superstar at her very best. She touches parts other singers cannot reach; if you will forgive my clumsy way of saying her delivery hits you in the solar plexus. A Knight to remember forever.
All photos copyright: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY