As we inch more and more towards the end of the second decade of this new century, it’s important to reflect on the musical legends that gained their notoriety in the last century.
We’re losing our music touchstones, these giants of popular music, at an amazing clip. Even late-century musicians like Chester Bennington, sadly, have left us way too early. Last year was a downright pandemic when it came to icons shedding their mortal coil: Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, and George Michael were artists who had singular voices in their respective genres. And, no matter how you may have liked or disliked their music (or personality), you’d have a hard time arguing that their voices can be replicated by this new breed of here-today-gone-tomorrow, auto-tuned talents.
So, when a bona fide legend like Smokey Robinson makes an appearance in Northeast Ohio you drop whatever it is you’re doing and hightail it to the Hard Rock Rocksino to get a glimpse of this man and hear a voice that, perhaps, may not make its way into your neighborhood again.
Based on last year’s malaise, I leave nothing to chance. Even when Adam Ant is in town and a whole lot closer to my abode than the climes of Northfield, I gave about three seconds of concentrated thought as to where I’d be last Saturday night and, hands down, seeing Smokey live on that stage was the winner. It wasn’t even a contest; sorry, Mr. Ant, I’ll catch you next time you swing through the 216.
Playing for about ninety minutes, Mr. Robinson sauntered out to a sold-out standing ovation. His pearly whites lit up the cavernous recesses of the Hard Rock Live theater as he dove into a handful of tunes that really helped to define the 1960s and beyond. Early offerings such as “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” and “I Second That Emotion” showed off the creamy bokeh of his singular falsetto. Approaching eighty years of age, Robinson still has a fantastic set of pipes.
Taking a moment to acknowledge the stable of Motown stars that he helped chart, Smokey paid homage to The Temptations and their retinue of songs by giving us a medley of tunes that he had a hand in creating as both a writer and producer. Singing a medley of abbreviated versions of “The Way You Do The Things You Do/Get Ready/My Girl,” he nailed each note of the songs made famous by the his label mates.
Robinson, along with The Miracles, were in 1960 the first act that Berry Gordy signed to the nascent Motown Records; looking back at the history this man brought to the Hard Rock’s stage is overwhelming. A prolific songwriter, singer, front man, solo artist and even a vice president of Motown in the 1970s, Robinson made an indelible mark on the music business for most of the latter half of the twentieth century. When he moved to the front office at Motown in the early ’70s his musical career took a back seat to his duties to the label; only after resuming a successful solo career did he release two tunes that anchored the latter half of Saturday’s show, “Being With You” and the encore, “Cruising.”
If I had a nit to pick, it’s when an artist (any artist, for that matter; I’m not picking on Smokey) leans into their most popular songs and turns the mic to the audience and lets the crowd take the lead on the vocals. It’s somewhat self-serving; I don’t want to see a bunch of middle-aged half drunk people lackadaisically sauntering through “Tracks Of My Tears” or “Tears of A Clown.” I want to hear the artist who made this song timeless sing it. Not Jody, the middle-aged accountant who bumbles the words two stanzas into the tune, between sips of her watered-down Jack and Coke.
But, all in all, this was a great show. Seeing Smokey Robinson, a legend amongst a dying breed, up on that stage, bringing out a swagger that puts most men half his age to shame and smiling that million-watter to a mesmerized crowd, was a highlight of my concert-going year.
Don’t take our legends for granted; much like the glaciers in Glacier National park, they’re not going to be around for too much longer.
Who are we going to go see in twenty years for a nostalgia and Jack-and-Coke fueled evening…Kanye?
Smoke ’em when ya got ’em.