When Motown first packaged up a roster of artists and songs that could be embraced by a non-black audience, no new act – not Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye or Little Stevie Wonder or Martha and the Vandellas or the Temptations – crossed over into the bosom of Middle America as easefully as the Supremes. Or Diana Ross and the Supremes, as with many internal ructions they were later rebranded, Ross being the one with shimmering star quality who stood in the middle and sang the lead.
They were signed to Motown 60 years ago and given songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland to sell in floor-length gowns. Those songs have seeped into the marrow of us all and, while the world marvels at the longevity of Sirs Paul, Mick, Rod and Elton, it’s time to hear it for the girls. Or the girl. Joan Baez having done her farewell tour, Diana Ross is the only major female singer from the era who is still at it.
She’s 78, and doesn’t mind saying so, and this alone merits the standing ovation that greeted her when, to the sound of ‘I’m Coming Out’, she came out into the O2 Arena, engulfed in an orange puffball creation like something that floats around coral reefs in documentaries. It made her visible from the distant top of the very back row, if not from space, and became a source of some fascination as Ross unclipped herself from this cumbersome cocoon and dragged it one-handed around the stage before casting it onto the floor stage right. Further such garments were similarly discarded. Across the night, quite as many cloaks were thrown as Motown bangers were sung.
‘Baby Love’, ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’, ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, ‘Love Child’ – there was a lot of love on the setlist, and in the room. Also relief. Anyone who paid top whack for a tour postponed from 2019, when Ross was a mere 75, may have seen a red flag in her turn at the Platinum Jubilee concert. She had to be assisted on, while the wonky sound system hinted at lip-syncing. Here she made her queenly exits and entrances unaccompanied. In an array of evening gowns – Halloween orange, sparkling orange, glistening silver, retina-assaulting lime green – she wiggled and shimmied and modestly sashayed.
As for the voice, it’s happiest in the chestier register and a bit thin and breathless wailing out the up-top notes of ‘Chain Reaction’. When Ross sang ‘Take Me Higher’, her vocal cords may have pleaded otherwise. A quartet of backing singers took on some of the heavier lifting. The proficiently funky ten-piece band was fronted by a horn quartet whose resourceful saxophonists whipped out flutes for ‘Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)’.
Now and then Ross brought it right down to encourage sweet singalongs in the likes of ‘If We Hold On Together’. But in truth the subtleties of her songbook were liable to get a little lost in an enormodome adapted for anthemising. Nor was the shape of the show quite crafted to build to a climax.
After ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and her house-y take on ‘I Will Survive’, a sit-down Q&A in the encore didn’t fly as the only people she could hear were her entire family bopping in the front row. But hey, she’s 78. She can do as she pleases. Due next at the O2 was Billie Eilish, who also started in her teens. If she too is still filling arenas 60 years after her first hit it’ll be 2075, and a miracle.
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