In his first Los Angeles show in 12 years, Smokey Robinson easily danced past all the pitfalls a comeback tour faces: change in styles, fading talent and a bar set by fans that measures an artist against not only contemporary acts, but also the star’s own past. A warm, sweetly nostalgic affair, it served to remind listeners of the man’s central place in Motown history and his influence on modern R&B.
It did not start auspiciously. An orchestra started playing “Send in the Clowns” as two dancers in harlequin masks flailed around in front of the curtain. That would be the only misstep of the evening as it led, thankfully, into “Tears of a Clown”; Smokey sauntered onto stage, dressed elegantly in black pants and a white jacket, and the harlequins turned into go-go dancers.
For the rest of his nearly two-hour performance, Robinson glided from hit to hit: “I Second That Emotion,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Being With You.” In the tradition of classic Motown shows, there was a medley — the songs that Robinson wrote for the Temptations, including “Get Ready,” “My Girl” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do”–and a tribute to Tin Pan Alley songwriters with an impassioned reading of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”
Robinson paid additional tribute to his Motown roots with the introduction of label founder Berry Gordy and bringing his songwriting collaborator Marv Tarplin out for a few songs.
But the show wasn’t all about nostalgia, as the three selections he performed from “Intimacy” (Motown), his latest album, showed that Robinson’s slow jams can stand up to modern R&B stars such as Maxwell.
Robinson was a modest, engaging presence onstage. His voice, raspy and tight in the earlier part of the show, grew stronger as the evening went on, easily reaching the high range of his tenor.
For “Ooh Baby, Baby” and “Tracks of My Tears” he broke out the firm vibrato and gospel swoops that made his singing so memorable. On “Bad Girl,” the Miracles’ first record, he used his virtuosity for comic effect, performing all the group’s parts and dance steps.
He might perform the same show any given night, but he has the charisma to make it seem fresh and real. After two encores, he appeared genuinely touched by the audience’s enthusiastic ovations, and fighting back tears, thanked the crowd for a wonderful night. The feeling was mutual.