Australian songstress and ’50s greaser moll, Olivia Newton-John played to a sold-out crowd at Northfield’s Hard Rock Rocksino Sunday evening in a concert that took the majority of the crowd back to their youth, in a wholesome, good old-fashioned way. When she sang her hit early-’80s smash “Physical,” she reminded the audience that the tune had been banned in some parts of the world due to its risque content. “Now,” she reminded us, “it could pass for a lullaby!”
And perhaps that’s the attraction of the sexagenarian singer. Coming to fame in the early 1970s with her wholesome demeanor, Ms. Newton-John skyrocketed to fame as the bobbysox and poodle skirt-wearing Sandra Dee in the 1978 musical blockbuster Grease. Trading in her wholesome look for a skintight pair of black leather pants and six-inch stilettos, the ending of the film showed the world a new Olivia (of course, I preferred the bobbysoxer Sandra Dee, but what did I know then?).
In 1980, she headlined another massively-hyped musical. Her above-the-marquee role as a Greek muse in the Gene Kelly-co-starrer Xanadu proved to be a box office bomb, but the soundtrack still ranks as one of the best mishmashes of music ever pressed into wax: On the LP, Side A was all Olivia and Side B was commandeered by British band ELO. The soundtrack was a huge hit, spawning several hits for both artists and bringing even more notoriety to the Down Under wonder.
Her career went on to even greater heights when she released Physical in 1981. Spawning the title track as a single, the song “Physical” went on to become the best-selling single of the entire decade.
How’s that for a pedigree?
So, the biggest question to ask is this: Well, how was the show?
Let’s put aside the nostalgia factor and even that last night’s show was a rescheduled gig from earlier this year. Ms. Newton-John was supposed to play the Rocksino back in June but had to cancel that part of her tour due to an unfortunate reoccurence of her breast cancer that forced her back to Australia for immediate treatment.
We’re lucky to have gotten her back to the states for last night’s show. I was a little wary of how the evening might go down; would this be a cringeworthy affair? Would it be a pity fest? Would she sound fantastic?
Thankfully, all seems to be well. Of course, I have no idea how she’s doing (her meet and greet prior to last night’s show was cancelled, perhaps due to her recent illness), but based on her stage presence all seems okey dokey.
Taking the stage a few minutes after eight o’clock, she started off the night with three tunes from the Xanadu album. “Magic,” her biggest hit prior to “Physical,” started things off. She segued into two more hits from the film, the title track “Xanadu” and the duet “Suddenly,” originally accomplished with Cliff Richard. Backup vocalist Steve Real took over Richard’s duties and the pair sounded great.
Telling us that she was an Ozzie girl let loose in England and that her first recordings were embraced as Country music (“Who knew?,”she intoned), she served up a medley of those first singles that brought her to attention in the states. Punctuated by “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “If You Love Me Let Me Know,” they were great mid-set offerings.
Taking a seat on a stool, the songstress offered a Latin-influenced version of her biggest hit, “Physical.” Re-arranging the tune to slow it down a bit and add a bit of breathing room, the song strangely fit into the evening’s festivities.
Of course, the audience was waiting with bated breath for what followed: Her rendition of the Grease material. Starting off with “You’re The One That I Want,” the upbeat chorus got most of the crowd on their feet. She then segued into a beautiful version of “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Challenging the audience in a guy-vs-gal throwdown (And daring any guy in the crowd to join in a theater camp version of the tune), a large portion of the audience participated in “Summer Nights.”
Leaving her trio of backup singers to handle much of “We Go Together,” the homage to Grease came to an end.
Rounding out the set with “Grace and Gratitude” from her latest album, she then gave us a stirring rendition of “I Honestly Love You.” Her voice was fantastic throughout the show, but it sounded even better by the evening’s end. She could’ve gone on for another hour, based on the timbre and strength of that last tune.
Returning for a one-tune encore, she ended the night with Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow.”
Judging by the smiles on the exiting crowd’s faces, I’d say that was just where she left us.