My friend Jason suggested we catch Diana Ross at New York City Center last night, and I'm glad we took the plunge. Having never seen her, she was on my bucket list, and didn't disappoint.
The space was crazy-small, so even from second-to-last row, I got good shots and videos of the diva, who has not only not changed, but seems to have become even more Diana Ross as the years have gone by.
The first look — we didn't want her to Stop!
She wafted out like a vision, with her signature big hair and glitzy, sequined gown, welcoming herself with her Top 5 smash from 1980 “I'm Coming Out.” Like her presentation, it was an unapologetically literal choice, and had the crowd stomping.
She effortlessly cooed her way through a Motown segment featuring “More Today Than Yesterday” and “My World Is Empty Without You” (many of her song choices and stage gestures seemed tailor-made to communicate with fans), “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Come See About Me,” “You Can't Hurry Love” and “Love Child.”
After the first gown swap (she favored us with five looks in all), she moved into the '70s with “The Boss” and “Touch Me in the Morning,” taking a Red Hot Rhythm & Blues detour with “It's Hard for Me to Say,” her only shaky performance all evening (she seemed a little lost, then joked that she would just read the words, presumably from a prompter).
She then brought down the house with an ecstatic “Upside Down,” for which she welcomed two of her grandkids, one daughter and a step-daughter onstage.
The '70s were back with “It's My House” and an ultra-slinky “Love Hangover,” which segued into her '90s hit “Take Me Higher,” itself a '70s throwback. Ross would occasionally give us a little vamping while singing, always with a mega-watt smile that made fun of herself, as if to discount her sexiness at 73, but she can definitely still pull it off.
You were expecting Lady Gaga? (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)
Tuesday night, I took my Encyclopedia Madonnica 20 designer Anthony with me to 54 Below for an evening of expensive scallops, microscopic dessert and a waiter who was serving ass for days, so we could take in the one-night-only show by crooner and pianist Michael Griffiths, In Vogue: Songs by Madonna.
If you've never seen or heard Griffiths, he's a nattily dressed cabaret performer who brings to life the oeuvre (said with all of Madonna's pretension) of the Queen of Pop, giving her songs the Cole Porter treatment while sardonically narrating her life and career.
The part of his show that takes some getting used to is that Griffiths addresses the audience as Madonna, but doesn't attempt to mimic her voice. For die-hard fans, his needling of Madonna's grandiosity and, at times, even her songwriting skills, can be alarming, but as the show unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that he's the type of person to keep his friends close and his icons closer.
A Truth or Dare black-and-white moment (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)
Griffiths has a beautiful, clear voice that he uses aggressively, squeezing out phrases brusquely and with precision. At times, his renditions were so fabulously inventive and fun to hear (“Die Another Day,” for example), it was frustrating that he would cut things short in order to be funny ... but funny he was.
Some of the songs that received relatively full renditions include her obvious best work, like “Vogue” and “Like a Prayer,” but one highlight of his curation was his selection of “Cry Baby” from I'm Breathless: Songs from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy, a gem of a tune that he rewrote in order to skewer Madonna's failed marriage to Guy Ritchie.
For me, the most interesting part of the show was a brilliantly compiled mash-up arranged to capture Madonna's movie career (aw, he referred to Evita as a Musical and/or Comedy), using snippets of her movie songs to sketch her (now long gone) desperation to be accepted as an actress. It was probably his most intelligent use of his spoken-word vs. sung-song approach, and was a harbinger of the poignancy he achieved by show's end.
Two faces of Griffiths — serious 'n' silly (Images by Matthew Rettenmund)
Griffiths is currently on a mini-tour, singing the songs of Cole Porter (presumably sans bitchy asides about Cole's contempt for Lady Gaga). Catch him if you can regardless of what he's warbling, but if you get a chance to witness him being like a Ciccone, live out your fantasies of Madonna as torch singer there with him.
My flash almost died waiting for this! (Image by Anthony Coombs)
Images of Piaf were projected onto the walls of the performance hall as Carrere sang. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund; other images by G. Marsalla)
I spent Friday evening listening to Edith Piaf sing at Carnegie Hall in the '50s.
Actually, the event was Piaf! The Show, we were in the Fifties in NYC and the singer was Anne Carrere, but close enough — Carrere hauntingly summons Piaf's vocal stylings so beautifully it has been said she possesses the legend's instrument at her peak. In a warm, witty rendering of all the songs Piaf made famous, Carrere's challenge was to inhabit Piaf's unique style while giving us flashes of her own personality.
Act I consisted of early Piaf, 16 French numbers performed with gusto by Carrere and her tight band. Carrere looked the part enough to create an illusion but not enough to appear to be a caricature. The crowd was eating from the palm of her hand, so delighted were they to be hearing songs in what was likely the native language of more than a few.
After an intermission, Carrere & Co. returned for 12 more tunes, these more modern and among Piaf's signature hits. With each number the crowd grew more enthusiastic, awaiting the inevitable arrival of “La Vie en Rose” and “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.” Carrere performed cheekily, leaving the stage to flirt with audience members, some of whom were all to eager to flirt back. (When she approached a woman, the attendee stood and shook her breasts, which earned her a skip.)
The only less than perfect part of the evening was when a creepy guy overeagerly volunteered to dance with Carrere onstage. Even seated, his body movements were disturbingly suggestive, threatening to kill the buzz of an incredibly emotional and faultlessly classy evening for Carrere, who was debuting at Carnegie Hall 60 years after Piaf's famed gig there. Her own respect for Piaf and her charm as a newcomer to the world stage won out.
Wayward audience members aside, the evening was magical, driven by Carrere's indefatigable growl and her sweetness in admitting to us how much it meant for her to be able to bring us those songs in that place in that context.
For us, too, and for any big fan of Piaf; this is a show that can't be missed. Let it pass you by and you will regret it.
Piaf!: The Show has about 400 upcoming shows scheduled through 2019 in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Info here.
Showtime's December 9 airing of Madonna: Rebel Heart Tour gets a meaty trailer, throughout which we hear Madonna singing “Easy Ride” from her 2004 album American Life, performed live only at Tears of a Clown in Australia.
I've always loved the Pet Shop Boys. I think I first heard “West End Girls” on a family trip—our only fancy trip ever—to Hawaii, if memory serves. Cool Europop is my jam.
Neil Tennant's introductory look (All images by Matthew Rettenmund)
Over the years, I've seen them perform quite a few times, but there's really only room in my heart for one overall musical inspiration, because as time has passed, I've become kinda a bad fan of my #3 faves (and of Blondie/Debbie Harry, my #2 faves)—like, I haven't even listened to their new album, and yet I bought VIP meet-and-greet tickets to their MSG show.
Though cool is probably not the first adjective she'd use to describe herself, Olivia Newton-John represented one side of my impression of coolness as a kid—my favorite male cousin was into Blondie, so Debbie Harry represented New Wave edginess to me, and my favorite female cousin received an ONJ album for Christmas that seemed to herald her arrival into womanhood. Both acts made me realize that keeping abreast of pop music was the only way to be true teenager.
Olivia is seemingly as busy in 2016 as she was back then, and her commitments are not only physical (she just returned to her wonderful show at the Flamingo's Donny & Marie Show Room in Las Vegas) but spiritual (she's always busy with her Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, and makes environmental causes a cornerstone of her stage show).
(GIF via Universal)
As I told the incandescent songbird—now the same age Gene Kelly was when he danced alongside her in Xanadu (1980)—she looks beautiful, sounds beautiful and, most importantly, is beautiful; her centered approach to her enduring career is inspirational without being preachy, and is spreading a little more love with each passing day.
Perhaps most exciting for fans is her brand-new album, LIV ON, a collaboration with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman, which dropped October 14. The album emphasizes the trio's vocal skill and sensitivity, nowhere more powerfully than on the single “LIVE ON,” a sonic rock on which survivors can cling while struggling to get through life's challenges. The album and single take ONJ full circle, back to her early country roots.
Speaking of her roots, I was lucky enough to catch Olivia's return to her Vegas residency following her August tour dates.
The Donny & Marie Show Room is a gorgeous space, designed like an old-fashioned nightclub/dinner-theater venue, just larger. There isn't a bad seat in the house, and Olivia didn't hit a bad note—all sung live, so you get more than just a piece of her.
Olivia looks phenomenal, isn't afraid to tease her audience and for the show's spirited numbers, especially a generous Grease segment and the stand-out from her pop/rock years, “Twist of Fate,” was frequently kick-dancing up and down the stage.
(GIF via 20th Century Fox)
If you want variety, she's got it—Olivia nimbly segues from country to pop to rock to yes, even a Latin number, to New Age. Along with singing most of her iconic hits, she threw in new work like the aforementioned “LIVE ON” and lesser-known singles like the heart-tugging nature anthem “Don't Cut Me Down.”
Somewhat surprisingly, “Physical” arrived in the dead center of the very lively show, which allowed for some of her less reserved fangirls to jump up and recreate the choreography from that unforgettably gay-friendly music video.
Just when I was thinking Olivia had exhausted her top-tier smashes, her finale—delivered in a dazzling, silver-sequined, form-fitting gown—arrived in the form of a gorgeous take on “I Honestly Love You.”
And, honestly, right back atcha.
After the show, I was escorted to the green room, where I was able to meet with Olivia, have her sign two of my cherished 45s and tell her how much I loved the show. When I randomly blurted out that I've always loved her 1992 hit “I Need Love,” she asked me to remind her of it, so I had to speak-sing to Olivia Newton-John! She gamely jumped in and sang what she could remember of the tune, which was a slinky pop number with one of the best Hi-NRG dance remixes of all time.