At age 69, Diana Ross is no longer the sylph fashionista who forged the template for modern pop diva-dom. Mother of five and grandmother of two, she’s still glamorous and beautiful (appearing a good two decades younger than she is) and her voice, though no longer able to hit those glorious high notes, remains remarkably supple.
It’s precisely because her voice is still so wonderfully emotive that her sold-out Hollywood Bowl concert Saturday night was both thrilling and frustrating. After making her entrance with her 1980 classic “I’m Coming Out,” Ross segued into a run of Supremes hits that were performed in full -- “Come See About Me,” “Where Did Our Love Go?,” “Baby Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Although her vocals were initially a little rusty, she was charismatic and commanding, holding concertgoers in the palm of her hand as they sang along to song after song. This segment of the show also contained one of the emotional highlights of the evening.
As Ross crooned “My World Is Empty Without You,” the screen behind her flashed rare photos and performance footage of various Motown greats, not only artists such as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and the Jackson 5, but also lesser known groups as well as session musicians. It was a generous gesture that went beyond an artist merely rifling through her celebrity-filled old photo albums; it was a reminder of the centrality of Motown records to modern pop culture. And images of the late Supreme Florence Ballard, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell made the trip down memory lane unexpectedly moving.
As the evening progressed and a variety of glittering gowns were rotated, the singer’s voice warmed up and she hit her stride, offering the lovely, jazz-tinged arrangement of “Touch Me in the Morning” that she’s favored in recent years, and then whipping the crowd into a dancing mob with the likes of “Upside Down,” “The Boss” and “Love Hangover.” But it was her show-stopping take on “Don’t Explain” that brought the audience to a hush, earning one of the night’s heartiest ovations. Her voice was crystalline and full of shading that did Billie Holiday proud.
It would have been a perfect set-up for her to tread into a quieter mode and demonstrate, yet again, what a dazzling jazz singer she’s become. Instead, she and her band immediately rushed head-long into a bouncy “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” that ruptured the moment and seemed to catch the audience off-guard.
Although the evening was peppered with songs beloved by die-hard fans (“It’s Hard for Me to Say,” penned for her by the late Luther Vandross, and the underrated dance track “Take Me Higher”), it was perhaps overly familiar to those who’ve caught Ross in concert over the last several years. Her set list has calcified a bit, which is unfortunate, given the vastness of her catalog. The last time she really did justice to her own artistic accomplishments was at the Pantages in 2004, where she dusted off some Ashford & Simpson tracks she rarely performs, and wowed the audience with an exquisite "Lady Sings the Blues" segment.
Still, the night at the Bowl was ultimately a success. We might wish she were a bit more adventurous in reminding us just how staggeringly expansive her musical palette actually is, but nothing can deny the goose-bump effect of thousands of people leaping to their feet in unison at the first strains of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and then turning the song’s performance into a near spiritual experience.
The night got off to a rocky start with opening acts Rhonda Ross, Pentatonix and Evan Ross. Rhonda, the perfect physical fusion of her mom and her dad (Berry Gordy) has a lot of her mother’s stage mannerisms and intonation, but her voice is largely nondescript, and was put in the service of completely forgettable original songs. Evan Ross was the definition of lackluster. Hiding behind aviator sunglasses for most of his brief set, he barely moved while onstage and possesses not an iota of his mother’s (admittedly massive) stage presence.
Vocally, he fits right in with the generic, adenoidal style of singing currently in vogue in R&B;, though his cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It,” showed flickers of vocal influences from both Jackson and the song’s writer, Stevie Wonder.
The a cappella group Pentatonix, a condensed and more talented riff on TV's "Glee," turned in an ill-advised cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” before winning back the crowd with a trek through the history of music, which started with choral chants before touching down with Beyoncé.
But vocalist Scott Hoying provided a record-scratch moment when introducing the group. With the guys, he appended a nod to their musical role in the group (“This is our bass; this is our soprano; this is our beat-box.”) But when introducing Kirstie Maldonado, the lone woman in the outfit, he said simply, “This is our lady.” Scott, you must do better.