Smokey Robinson played a remarkable concert this week in Los Angeles, one that clearly demonstrated that the 75-year-old singer still has a voice — and still has things to say with it.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the performance I caught Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
That show, the first of three in the venue’s annual July 4 Fireworks Spectacular series, merely reiterated the established knowledge about Robinson, who from the early 1960s to the late ’80s did as much as anyone to devise the sound (and set the ambitions) of modern soul music.
The exceptional gig happened Sunday at the BET Awards, broadcast from the Microsoft Theater downtown, where Robinson received a lifetime achievement award. Wearing a blue satiny suit that made him look like the world’s hippest pastor, the singer accepted his prize with a beautifully composed speech — a sermon, really — in which he beseeched his fellow celebrities to resist the “intoxicating” lure of self-absorption.
Then he did a medley of several of his classics, singing so warmly that you understood the earlier admonition had come not from bitterness but from love. Long celebrated as a poet of romance, Robinson on Sunday appeared downright philosophical, as though he’d unlocked the mystery of life. “Cruisin’” never sounded so wise.
Backed by his band as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the singer brought that warmth to the Bowl, of course, for an assured, fast-moving set that pulled from all chapters of his extensive songbook: hits with the Miracles (“I Second That Emotion”), hits he wrote for other Motown acts (“The Way You Do the Things You Do”), solo hits (“Being with You”), even a rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon,” from his underappreciated 2006 standards album “Timeless Love.”
“Thank you both,” he quipped when his mention of the disc was met with sparse applause.
Yet little of the intensity that Robinson flashed at the BET Awards survived Thursday; worse, that seriousness of purpose often gave way to a corny Las Vegas vibe, as in “Quiet Storm,” which brought two dancers clutching umbrellas to the stage, and a painful bit in which Robinson’s backup vocalists pretended to argue over the crowd’s singing along to “My Girl.”
Granted, few in the enthusiastic audience seemed to mind that he was on autopilot, a sign that perhaps Robinson felt the Fireworks Spectacular wasn’t the place to dig in. (Prior to Robinson’s set, the concert began with a selection of what Phil conductor Sarah Hicks referred to as “great American music”: “America, the Beautiful,” the theme from “Star Wars,” you get the picture.)
Yet dig in is precisely what he did in a few tantalizing instances, highlights that only made the rest of Thursday’s show feel more shallow.
The first was “Ooo Baby Baby,” which Robinson slowed to an agonized crawl, all the better to showcase the delicate quiver of his voice; here he was really getting inside the music, reconstructing his phrasing in such a way that the song’s desperation came alive.
The other standout came near the end of the show in “The Tracks of My Tears,” which started out high and light, a study in delicacy, then gradually grew darker and heavier, with the singer growling his lyrics as the Phil blasted away behind him.
As promised, a fireworks display followed Robinson’s performance. But I wish he’d stuck around and fanned his own flame.