Gladys Knight – or the ‘Empress of Soul’ as she has long been known, presumably a title that about twenty-five years ago caused Michael Jackson to suddenly begin calling himself the ‘King of Pop’ – played to a sold-out the Royal Albert Hall last night.
As your local reporter, I was on hand to witness this fourth concert on her latest seven-date UK tour (her ‘Farewell’ version of which, Wikipedia tells me, was mounted in 2009) and first I must begin by recommending to all Rust readers that if possible whenever going to the ‘Albert Hole’ … unless of course they ‘own’ a box … they try to buy seats in the ‘Choir East, Row 9’ [Entering by Door 3].
Having been consigned there by chance when clicking on the ‘best available seats’ box on the RAH website, to be honest I feared the worst when my mini-group of four was directed to a lift and fired into the stratosphere but was then delighted to the point of near-delirium when we struggled past a line of suitably expectant concert-goers to reach our eagle’s nest for the evening. Overlooking one side of the stage, it was not only a perfectly-acceptable viewpoint but had the distinct advantage of being in a ‘single row of seats’ fronted by a small balcony topped by a flat velvet surface on which one could either lean or (had one wished) throw popcorn onto the great unwashed seated below.
On two occasions that I can remember [which doesn’t mean that de facto there weren’t many more] I have previously sat ‘behind the stage’ at this iconic venue of necessity, this normally being a position that I would flinch from if offered at any concert hall.
One was at a Sting concert at which he was supported by ‘white soul’ starlet Joss Stone.
The second took place on 2nd May 2005 – the first epic night of the four-night-only reunion concerts by legendary 1960s super-group The Cream (Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton) – literally one of those ‘I was there’ moments that anyone present could subsequently waffle on about for the rest of his life … as I have been accused of doing at a minimum of three dinner parties.
That night I even bought an XL black T-shirt boasting on its front the nature of the occasion and the date [cost circa £45 from an official merchandising stall] which sadly, from about its third wash, had shrunk to such a degree that the only member of my family that has been able to wear it since is my granddaughter’s teddy bear.
Now where was I – oh yes, Gladys Knight …
When my brother rang me and said excitedly that he’d noticed Gladys was playing the RAH, I have to admit that the news registered about 2 of a scale of 10 in terms of personal interest.
I have known and respected the musicality and charisma of the great exponents of the Motown sound for fifty years but in my mind’s eye La Knight was now [she’s 71] a Las Vegas-playing shadow of what must have been her former self.
Nevertheless I continued listening. My sibling announced that he was a huge fan and his wife – who had only ever been to two concerts in her entire life, both in the 1980s, one given by the bass-booming Barry White and the other by Stevie Winwood (of the Spencer Davis group and Blind Faith fame) which she had attended by accident because she was going out with a new boyfriend at the time and had felt unable at that embryo stage of their relationship to admit she had never heard of him – was minded to attend. Would I like to go, perhaps accompanied by my ‘other half’?
Keeping my initial reservations to myself, I then noticed that the date in question was 1st July – She Who Must Be Obeyed’s birthday. A plan began to hatch in the Ingolby brain-box. Might we possibly make ‘an evening’ of it, i.e. a birthday outing? The answer was almost certainly yes, given that I hadn’t taken the lady in question out on her birthday in eleven years.
And thus last night we found ourselves at said concert.
My biggest fear in anticipation, not least given the Memsahib’s lack of interest in principle, was the state of the Empress of Soul. So often veteran artistes in the flesh are disappointments – voices shot, going through the motions in the cause of another payday, happy just to be playing anywhere to a respectful audience. I’ve had the misfortune to see plenty of them and, with the memorable exception of the then ancient and doddery Ray Charles whom I once saw supporting Van Morrison at Wembley Arena but who on the night outshone even Van The Man when they sang together, they can be excruciating to behold.
However I am pleased to report that, on that score alone, last night was a comfortable win. Gladys Knight may just have entered her eighth decade but she still had ‘it’ – a strong voice and plenty of ‘presence’, as befits a multi-Grammy-winner and member of US rock music’s much-vaunted Hall of Fame.
She and her powerful backing band and singers gave us a smattering of her hits, but also their takes on some modern and/or eclectic choices of other people’s songs. In particular, presumably out of deference to her UK audience, she gave the Beatles’ Something an outing (in a duet with her brother Merald, known as ‘Bubba’, one of the originals Pips) and then a two-minute cover current Brit ‘sensation’ Sam Smith’s Stay With Me which was streets ahead of the original. The lady really can sing, folks.
In an overall sense, how did the concert go? The packed auditorium was on its feet, worshipping and ‘bopping’ away to everything – I should say the average punter on the night (especially the ladies) waddled away as happy as Larry.
Me? I could give it no more than 5 out of 10. The fundamental flaw was the RAH’s perennial Achilles heel – the sound quality. Since time immemorial it has been notorious for its awfulness. Sadly the opening number sounded as though it had been blended in a Magimix food processor and was coming out as a soup and things improved little from there.
I worked out afterwards that the evening had cost the best part of £400 – tickets at £45 a pop, £80 on taxis, £90 on a pre-theatre meal at the Bistro 190 in Queens Gate, £110 on drinks (including as bottle of champers at £60 on its own). Hopefully it will all turn out to have been worth it – back home at last, with the England Lionesses about to take on Japan in the Women’s World Cup semi-final against Japan live on BBC1, the ‘Ball and Chain’ seemed to have enjoyed herself.