Gladys Knight, Wembley Arena, London – October 8th 2009
When an artist steps on stage glittering from head to toe and says: “Hey y’all! Work day’s over it’s time to party!” you know you’re in safe hands. Gladys Knight has been performing for nearly 50 years with Pips and without, so what she doesn’t know about stage-craft and singing ain’t worth knowing. Her show was a masterclass in performing, her voice majestic and her crowd patter radiated warmth – Gladys made her gig into a two-hour party and brought Wembley Arena to its knees. From her opening number of Every Beat Of My Heart, you knew we were in the presence of pop royalty…
Before Gladys’s big entrance though the support came from Tito Jackson and his band. Not just a Jackson 5 tribute – although they did strike up versions of ABC and I’ll Be There with backing singers standing in for Michael, as well as later hits like Shake Your Body – Tito was surprisingly all about the blues. The biggest cheer of his set though was saved for his watching brothers Marlon and Jackie and mother Katherine. However, after an hour the Jacksons were reduced to mere sideshow as Knight took to the stage.
“I thought I’d take you on a musical journey – y’all like the sound of that?” she asked, before launching into a phenomenal set made up of her classics like If I Were Your Woman, You’re The Best Thing The Ever Happened To Me and Heard It Through The Grapevine, but also peppered with favourites she’s performed throughout the years. “I didn’t really understand If I Were Your Woman when Mr Gordy gave it to me and didn’t want to sing it, but he was right in the end to make me,” she mused.
Some might say Gladys is a name-dropper, but her tales of working with past greats like Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald were fascinating, punctuating as they did her covers of some of her friends’ classic tracks, including Streisand’s The Way We Were (which drew a standing ovation), Teddy Pendergrass’s If You Don’t Know Me By Now and Bette Midler’s Wind Beneath My Wings. “I love songs that move me,” she told us, before launching into a charged rendition Boyz II Men’s End Of The Road.
In between all the talk of legends Knight told us how much she loved us and love itself, confiding that she was an old romantic at heart. And that’s the thing – such was the sincerity of Knight’s show and the raw emotion that she put into her singing that every song sounded fresh, bringing many spine-tingling moments – how Simon Cowell must wish he could bottle such easy talent and charisma. As Knight’s friend Dionne Warwick told us as she took to the stage for two stunning duets: “I think she’s never sounded better than she did tonight – she’s the ultimate stage performer.” Knight and Warwick joined forces on I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again and That’s What Friends Are For – combined, their voices were a true tour du force – and there was still time for Gladys’s brother, original Pip Merald ‘Bubba’ Knight, to enter the fray for a spot of slapstick comedy dancing.
After nearly two hours, Knight waved us off on her Midnight Train To Georgia as the audience woo-wooed in time, before encoring with I Will Survive, which she dedicated to all the divas in the house. By the end of an evening with Knight though nobody was fooled – there was only one diva present and correct in the room.