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Music Review: Smokey's superb, and the crowd seconds that emotion

Monday, August 14, 2000

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Bob Dylan -- whose own poetry entitles him to make outlandish claims regarding other artists -- once called Smokey Robinson "America's greatest living poet."

Further proof of Dylan's genius, I'd say.

From his early days at Motown, spinning out the words to "My Girl," "The Tracks of My Tears," "You've Really Got a Hold Me" and other American classics, to his solo years with hits like "Cruisin'," Smokey Robinson has more than done his share to introduce a level of sophistication to the dial.

And to the people, singing those great hits and more at the I.C. Light Amphitheatre Saturday night.

His vocals may have grown a little raspier with age, but Robinson remains an awe-inspiring singer, smooth but soulful.

These are truths we held to be self-evident going into Station Square -- that Smokey Robinson would sing a lot of songs most writers -- even Dylan -- only wish they could have written, and that when he sang them, it would be a sound as sweet as any sound in pop.

The thing that took us by surprise -- the thing we'd never heard a single person talk about -- was the level of showmanship you get with Smokey Robinson. The man could be a standup comic if he wanted, whether telling jokes or teasing someone in the audience for shouting out the Miracles (his own group) in the middle of a story he'd been telling about the songs he'd written for another group on Motown, the Temptations.

When he wasn't clowning with the crowd (or playing to the ladies), Smokey spoke with great sincerity of his old friends at Motown, how he missed them as they'd gone their separate ways.

He honored requests for a handful of lesser-known Miracles songs, including a wonderful "You Can Depend on Me." At one point, he knelt at the edge of the stage to give a hug to local DJ Porky Chedwick -- the first in the nation, he said, to play the single "Bad Girl," a song that found him clowning through the vocal parts and dance steps of the missing Miracles.

The concert began with a melodramatic performance of "Send in the Clowns" by Smokey's backup band, his singers, local strings and ballet dancers dressed as clowns. It was scary, at first, to sit there hoping it was just an introduction to "Tears of a Clown." But that's exactly what it was. And "Tears" was everything it should be, from the driving tempo to the sweet falsetto vocals. Even after all these years, it's still amazing how the man could make a Pagliacci reference sound so natural.

And he followed that performance with hit after hit after hit -- "I Second That Emotion," with its classic Motown backbeat, into the slow-burning soul that was "You Really Got a Hold on Me," which led directly to the smooth, romantic "Being With You" and finally, "Ooh Baby Baby." Now that was a show-stopper, Robinson pouring his energies into what was easily his most impassioned vocal yet on a song that gained intensity by being even slower than it is on record. By the time he brought it home while holding on an "ooh" that wouldn't quit, the crowd was going nuts, to which he smiled and said: "We shoulda played that first."

As much a writer as an entertainer, he treated the crowd to a medley of songs he'd written for his friends, the Tempts -- "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "It's Growing," "Since I Lost My Baby," "Don't Look Back" (an underrated treasure) and "Get Ready" among them. He ended, of course, with "My Girl." Played a bit too fast to let the orchestration really sing, it ended in a rousing, comic singalong.

The other highlights of the evening ranged from '80s hits ("One Heartbeat," "Cruisin'," "Just to See Her") to the spine-tingling climax of "Tracks of My Tears" that ended the set as fireworks went off across the river to a well-earned second encore that sent Boomers on their way with an abbreviated "Going to a Go-Go."

Robinson was clearly thrilled to be here in the land of Porky Chedwick. As he told the crowd, "I grew up coming here." And when he came out for an encore -- after joking that he "thought you all were tired," he turned sincere again and said, "When something like this happens, it's like a prayer being answered for me."

A lot of prayers were answered that night, judging from the crowd's response.

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