Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Concert Review: Diana Ross at Chautauqua Institution, NY

As soon as I heard that Diana Ross was coming to the Chautauqua Institution at the end of the week I was vacationing there, I resolved to see her. I don’t believe she had ever given a concert in this famous amphitheater in southwestern New York that had also seen such musicians as John Philip Sousa, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Beach Boys, and Michael Jackson; and, given her age, I didn’t know how many more chances I might get to see her perform again.

As it happened, I counted myself lucky to see her at all. The show sold out weeks in advance, and I was unsure, because of Chautauqua’s revised amphitheater seating arrangements of the last couple of years (notably, its “preferred seating” section), if I would even be able to get in. 

Luckily, armed with my weekly pass to the grounds, all I had to do was line up an hour and a half before the show. Even that far ahead of time, the line—senior citizens, the middle-aged, the young, the diehard fans and the merely curious—stretched down the hill.

I had never seen the Motown legend in concert. I suspect that many in the audience that night did not labor under this handicap. A middle-aged guy next to me, for instance, said his wife—sitting much closer to the stage than us—had seen the singer seven times, on this tour alone.

“This tour” was being billed as the “75th Birthday Tour,” but it could just as easily have been labeled the “60th Anniversary Tour,” as Ms. Ross had signed her first professional contract, with Motown, in 1959. Whichever title you prefer, the point is that Ms. Ross is a show-business veteran. She knows what her audience wants and what she must do to fulfill these expectations. 

More often than not, those expectations boil down to her greatest hits and a heavy dose of glamour—or, as another audience member noted at the conclusion of the show, “19 songs and five costume changes.”

Ms. Ross and her troupe—four backup singers and a tight set of musicians—have become quite adept at those wardrobe transitions. As she changed rapidly into yet another sartorial stunner (e.g., a clinging, gray sequined gown), her musicians used the additional two or three minutes tacked on at the end of particular songs to jam, demonstrating their considerable skill. (Saxophonist John Scarpulla was particularly impressive.)

Throughout the tour, Ross has not been afraid to vary her set list and even her routine, depending on the locale and the occasion. (At the Hollywood Bowl, for instance, backed by a full orchestra, she included several less-familiar tunes; at New York’s Radio City Music Hall less than two weeks before the Chautauqua gig, a number of tunes resonated very strongly with fans celebrating Pride Month; and on another occasion, she took audience questions, Carol Burnett-style.)

At Chautauqua, the opening number was—hardly a surprise—“I’m Coming Out,” with much of the early going featuring such hits from Ms. Ross’ Sixties heyday with the Supremes as “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Come See About Me,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Love Child.” 

Later, solo career hits from the Seventies and early Eighties also thrilled the audience, such as “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Take Me Higher,” “Upside Down,” and the most familiar tunes from her films Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz. Some cover tunes (notably, of The Spiral Staircase’s “More Today Than Yesterday” and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”) were also greeted warmly, as they have become concert staples of hers, too.

Like the ancient Roman huntress Diana, Ms. Ross has achieved the status of a deity. Remarkably, she has lost little not only in glamour but in the quality of her voice. While never powerful, even thin at points, it retains its warmth and sweetness, reaching out to touch three generations of fans. It was aided in Chautauqua by brief but effective stage patter in which she not only expressed sincere gratitude for fans’ affection but also conveyed a welcoming manner to many—notably, children she invited onstage with hugs and statements like, “Don’t be shy—I’m a grandmommy!” 

For all her undoubtedly sincere regard for her audience, Ms. Ross became a decade-defying institution less out of love than shrewdness and toughness—a canny calculation of her strengths and weaknesses matched only by her ability to withstand an entertainment industry that places a premium on trendiness and youth. In the eyes of some peers (notably, Supremes colleague Mary Wilson), she has gone beyond being a diva to being a termagent. 

But that endurance should be celebrated, too—as Ms. Ross did, implicitly, with the final song, song made famous not by her but by Gloria Gaynor: “I Will Survive.” The reaction at Chautauqua confirmed that she had done so, emphatically, already.

Daughter Rhonda Ross, a singer-songwriter and guitarist in her own right, preceded her mother in a 5-song, 15-minute set that was respectfully received by the audience in the amphitheater. Respect, that is, but not rapture, which can only be generated by goddesses like her mother. Or, as a lyric from my favorite song of hers goes: On that you can depend, and never worry.

(Photo of Diana Ross taken by Harry Wad at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, Oslo Spektrum, Norway, Nov. 11, 2008.)

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