At 70, hailed by one and all as one of the principal architects of soul, did Smokey Robinson have anything left to prove? Hard to believe, but yes, for until Wednesday night, Robinson had never performed in the most famous concert facility in his adopted hometown, the Hollywood Bowl. He did so as just another entry in the Jazz at the Bowl series, but the concert turned out to be more of a piece with the “soundtrack of your life” events (like concerts by Paul McCartney and James Taylor/Carole King) that have drawn well at the bowl this year, as well as a sign that Robinson is still a creative force. To brazenly lift a title from one of Robinson’s hits, he made it a “special occasion.”
You would expect Robinson’s hits with the Miracles to keep tumbling out in an unimpeded flood from this performer/songwriter — and so they did, starting with a hard-pounding “Going to a Go-Go” and continuing with “I Second That Emotion,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” and a moody, jazzy rendition of his solo hit that inspired a whole radio genre, “Quiet Storm.” Most engaging was his running anecdotal narrative for the medley of hits that he wrote for the Temptations — “The Way You Do the Things You Do, “Get Ready” and “My Girl.”
Yet Robinson has not entirely encased his astonishing back catalog in an amber time warp. At times, he could transform a well-worn signature tune like “The Tracks of My Tears,” building from a quiet ballad backed by an electric guitar to churchy triumphant fervor aided by artful stage lighting. He also briefly mined the Great American Songbook, connecting it with his own legacy of romantic song — it was fun to hear Robinson bounce through “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” — and not incidentally, lending some plausibility to the concert’s Jazz at the Bowl designation.
Most significantly, Robinson is not quite ready to leave his legacy to history. He presented some material from his most recent (2009) project, “Time Flies When You’re H ears in the biz — and at least one of his new songs, “Love Bath,” was a catchy, disco-bumping, sensual, hypnotic winner.
Faced with a two-hour show, the canny, well-preserved veteran paced himself carefully, starting slowly perhaps with a bit of deceptive stiffness. But well before the show’s end, Robinson was moving and grooving with the vigor of a performer half his age, and his trademark falsetto voice actually seemed to grow smoother and stronger.
The backup band was solid and tight; two sexy female dancers sashayed out onstage at times, changing costumes for each number. And Robinson’s undiminished instincts as a showman culminated in a 20-minute, audience-participation “Cruisin’ ” marathon that grew and grew until the curfew beckoned. No spent volcano is he.
Lizz Wright opened for Robinson, her sustained dusky voice packing as many different idioms — the most dominant being gospel — as she could into a 30-minute slot.