It should come as no surprise that soul legend Gladys Knight effortlessly took over the Tivoli Theatre last night for one of the best concerts I’ve ever had the privilege of attending. After all, she’s been doing this for decades and has had some time to get it right. And as incredibly memorable as her records are, there’s simply no substitute for hearing her songs in a live setting. She was charming, funny and spoke to us like old friends. And as she easily walked her way through these seminal songs, there was a sense of joy and inclusivity that poured out from the stage.
But before we get to the “Empress of Soul,” a few words should be said about her opening act, a Nashville artist by the name of Devon Gilfillian. With only a selection of guitars and some foot percussion, he perfectly conveyed the emotion and ache of the blues and soul while pouring out his heart. His charisma could have overflowed the Tennessee River, and he was the epitome of a gracious and humble musician. With a voice that echoed the work of Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder in equal measure, Gilfillian was a sight to behold as he bantered with the audience over the spelling of his name and the inspirations for some of his songs.
After a short but remarkable set, Gilfillian exited the stage, and there was a brief intermission to finish the setup for Knight. There was nothing particularly extravagant about the design, just the usual keyboards, guitars, various mics and drums. But surrounded by the gorgeous environment of the Tivoli, there really was no need for the stage to try to be anything more than a platform from which Knight and her band could spread the gospel about her classic soul innovations to a willing group of fans. The lights flickered, and we were ready to go.
The band came out to a roar of applause and set about playing some truly rhythmic bouts of funk and soul noise, a perfect sound to transport us back to the late ’60s and early ’70s. After a time, the back curtains parted, and Gladys Knight walked onstage to a standing ovation and a deafening explosion of claps, whistles and a current of electric energy that surged through the theater. She was conversational, warm and elegant-exactly what you’d expect from someone who’s been doing this for decades and whose work basically set the foundation of soul music. When she sang, that voice was as clear and confident as it’s ever been.
It felt as though we were having a conversation with someone who had some truly interesting stories to tell. Granted I was sharing the auditorium with hundreds of people, but she had the distinct ability to sing and talk as if she were addressing me individually. It was amazing to hear her talk about herself, her band and the history of her music in such a candid and honest way. You might think that after all this time, she would have let her wide influence and fame go to her head, but she sounds and feels as down to earth as someone you might have known for years.
The set list was fiery and unpredictable, a collection of songs that played to her strengths and ability to harness the power of other artists’ work and channel it through her own unique soul lens. Tracks such as “If I Were Your Woman,” “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” and “Midnight Train to Georgia” highlighted the exquisite delights of her range and devotion to her craft. She also performed a lengthy and audience participation-filled version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which left everyone on their feet swaying in time to the music and the emotional conviction in her voice.
One of the many highlights of the evening was her version of Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” which was just utterly devastating in Knight’s hands. It was one of many times during the evening where you could see tears forming in her eyes. Her cover of Barbara Streisand’s “The Way We Were” was equally beautiful and heartbreaking. Knight has a rare gift for imbuing her singular and radiant spirit into whatever she happens to be singing, regardless whether it’s her song, giving them all new life as only she could.
Toward the end of the night, she stepped back from the spotlight to allow her band to take her place. She had just given a wonderful speech about the need to nurture talent and ambition in young people and said that her band had approached her about doing something a little bit different. She had suggested that they listen to some greats from the past for inspiration, and they had done just that. What followed was a rousing and epic tribute to Prince, with snippets of a handful of his songs played and worked through until the late superstar himself would have been proud. Knight eventually stepped back up to sing with them and even gave a shattering Prince-worthy scream during “Purple Rain” that completely caught me off guard. It’s still echoing in my head the morning after.
I’m not sure what expectations I had going into this concert. But whatever they were, they were absolutely demolished by the time the music ended. As I was walking out into the night, heading to my car, I just couldn’t get her and her music out of my head. Knight will always hold a place in the annals of soul music for her contributions to the genre, but for tonight, at least, she was my own personal music maker-a kind soul who offered some respite from the divisions outside that room and simply asked that I listen to some music and feel its spirit move inside my heart for a brief time.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.