He’s unquestionably a legend, but the seemingly ageless Smokey Robinson spent as much of his time Thursday night dispelling any notions he’s slowing down as he did showcasing various aspects of an amazing career that dates back to the late ’50s.
It was the opening night of a two-concert residency with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra at the Schermerhorn, and Robinson’s energy seldom wavered during a lengthy, often explosive set that covered major hits, soul classics, and some unexpected gems.
He frequently referenced his long and glowing history at Motown. Robinson spent ample time during an extensive 90-minute-plus set telling stories, recalling events, and performing many of the hits he wrote not only for the Miracles and later on his own, but for others like the Temptations.
His renditions of “Get Ready” and “My Girl” were just two of many occasions during which the near capacity audience gladly joined in the singing, with Robinson demonstrating how a true pro works and milks a grateful crowd.
Besides the symphony, he had his own six-piece band plus three background vocalists and two dancers, who engaged him in several exuberant routines that had many wondering could this possibly be the same Smokey Robinson who made such ’60s and ’70s hits as “Going To A Go-Go,” “Tears of A Clown,” “I Second That Emotion,” “A Quiet Storm” and “You Really Got A Hold On Me” anthems during their youth.
On “Ooo Baby Baby” he got the first of many standing ovations for a rendition that was equal parts sensual and flamboyant, with some brilliant harmonizing at the beginning and end. It took a couple of tunes for him to really loosen up, but then that magical voice rounded into shape and the wondrous high sheen and falsetto began to appear.
Obviously he can’t hit the identical high notes, sustain the long tones or do some of the other technically awesome things he once did (at least not as often), but the voice overall remains in strong shape and fine form.
He even threw in some surprises, with a cover of a Norah Jones hit and a couple of jazz-tinged numbers from the early days, when he, The Four Tops and others were toiling in Detroit’s jazz clubs prior to Berry Gordy establishing Motown as a soul and pop music factory.
His versions of “Fly Me To The Moon” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” wouldn’t necessarily make anyone forget about Frank Sinatra or Joe Williams, but he displayed a rhythmic smoothness and melodic sensibility that reaffirmed his comments about growing up in a house where “music was playing all the time, all kinds, from gutbucket blues to jazz, gospel, classical, you name it, I heard it and on ’78’s lots of times.”
The Symphony gave its customary ultra-tight, finely performed 40-minute opening set. They began with Mendelssohn’s “From A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” ably playing both the familiar “Wedding March” and lesser known “Scherzo.”
Then came the evening’s romantic theme “Aura Lee (Love Me Tender),” forever immortalized by Elvis Presley. Their set was capped by a spry Antal Doráti arrangement of Jacques Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne, Overture on Themes of Offenbach,” and Robert Wendel’s arrangement of “Viva Puccini.” As conductor Albert-George Schram said, “We make one hell of a warm-up band.”
They also provided expert support for Smokey Robinson, whose mix of classics and a few contemporary pieces made it an ideal Valentine’s night for those who enjoy both good music and a romantic setting.
IF YOU GO
Smokey Robinson performs in concert with the Nashville Symphony. The concert is 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $89 to $149. Call 687-6400 or click here.