Her legend tainted by run-ins with the law and endless tales of an oversized ego, Diana Ross cleans the slate with a night of musicmaking that celebrates glamour and legend. With nothing left to prove, she doesn’t venture into untested waters. Miss Ross is very much captive to her own history — a distant cry from Aretha Franklin’s summertime gig in L.A. that emphasized range over hits. Oddly enough, one of Ross’ best perfs came on a song not associated with her hit parade, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” the Four Tops hit penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland that Ross covered in 1971. It was a signal that she still has interpretive tools that, unfortunately, lay dormant.
Ross turned the full-bodied “Reach Out” into a tender ballad, but it was the only instance in which the singer opted for a direction that didn’t reflect the style of the original recording in her 26-song, six-outfit show. She dropped in some lesser-known tunes from the 1990s, but ultimately, her 2004 show is as neatly divided as anything she has done over the last 20 years or so. There’s Diana girlishly fronting the tunes off the Motown assembly line; there’s sex symbol Diana breathing fire into disco fodder; and there’s Diana as Billie Holiday, exposing her penchant for a controlled take on an old ballad. (A two-CD greatest hits package, “Love and Life,” was released last week.)
Fortunately, Ross makes it all fun for the sold-out house, as varied an over-30 audience as anyone attracts these days. Her voice, still girlish when she needs it to be at 60, was commanding throughout the night, even when the sound system muddied her backing band and made her slog through the muck. She apparently wants everyone to know she’s singing live, excusing herself to catch her breath, practicing a couple of scales and asking for breath spray and a cup of tea as the 130-minute performance wore on.
Unlike so many of her Motown peers, Ross delivered full-length versions of her hits, cutting short only “I’m Coming Out” — a bizarre move considering that the song has only risen in stature in the 24 years since it was a No. 5 pop hit.
She delivered a magnificently measured reading of “Reflections,” a sweet and tender “My Man” from “Lady Sings the Blues” and an aggressive spin on “Mirror Mirror” that made you wonder why that wasn’t a bigger hit for her in the late ’70s. Curiously, Ross created a lengthy medley out of one of her weakest songs, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To? (Theme from Mahogany),” with one of her finest, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Wandering into the audience to find songwriter Brian Holland, Smokey Robinson, Berry Gordy and her children created the illusion that she has a desire to be part of one big, happy family — a distant Detroit memory, one assumes, that’s impossible to recapture. Divas tend to like to keep their distance, which may explain whey Ross’ presence on the concert and record release schedules has been rather intermittent in the last 10 years. At the Pantages, though, she appeared to feel at home, and at peace.