“We’ve been trying for a while to get here,” said Darlene Love on Wednesday night as she beamed out at her Ordway Concert Hall audience. That’s an understatement: in a career spanning well over 50 years, the St. Paul show marked her Twin Cities debut.
Fortunately for those of us who have been patiently waiting — a number that included the many Baby Boomers in the audience, and fans who ran forward to the stage between songs with original vinyl copies of A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector for Love to sign — the music legend is still in fine voice, and even better spirits.
Though it was a holiday show, Love scooted onto the stage in a tight black outfit that looked better-suited for clubbing than Christmas, and she wore it well. An intermission costume change saw her don a sequined gold top that might have represented her many gold records.
Among the hits she regaled us with: “Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “He’s a Rebel,” and of course “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
Though it didn’t chart as a single on its 1963 release, the latter has become Love’s signature song since its revival in the ’80s; for the last three decades of David Letterman’s late-night run, Love would visit his show every holiday to sing the song. The epic recording has also grown in critical acclaim: by general consensus, it’s the greatest holiday track of the rock era.
It was produced, of course, by Phil Spector. The storied visionary is currently imprisoned for a 2003 murder, and it’s now well-known that he treated his singers poorly. He was the elephant in the room last night, and Love addressed that fact directly. “Hate is really too hard to carry around with you,” she said, telling the audience that she chooses to focus on the music and leave the bad memories behind.
Love has also become well-known as a backing singer who finally got her due credit; she appeared in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, and on Wednesday night she was sure to show her own backing singers a lot of love. The trio had two carols to their own after intermission, and Love introduced them — well, lovingly. She saved particular care for Ula Hedwig, who’s been singing with Love for 35 years and also happens to be a founding member of Bette Midler’s Harlettes.
In addition to the trio of singers (which also included Milton Vann and Baritone Williams), Love brought an eight-piece backing band which did its damnedest to replicate Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound.” Watching monstrous tracks like Spector’s arrangement of “Marshmallow World” performed live made clear just how strong a vocalist you needed to be to cut through the clamor.
Love threw a little affectionate shade at the late Sonny Bono, whose nasal drone distinguished itself in a bad way. Love herself has always relied on her buttery low range, which has helped her voice age well. If she discreetly cuts her climactic notes short, it only serves to illustrate just how hard she pushed her voice — even in its robust youth — for those towering original recordings. Most of the time, though, Love still sounds on-point, with the forceful but warm delivery that’s sent shivers down spines for half a century.
She’s also quite a raconteur, telling stories about Steven Van Zandt (who produced her 2015 album Introducing Darlene Love) and Home Alone 2 — explaining that she pushed to record a new song (“All Alone On Christmas”) for the film rather than see “Baby Please Come Home” trotted out yet again. After singing “The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” she mused, “I get asked to do that a lot at weddings…and I get paid quite a lot of money to do it!”
She’s earned every penny, and every ounce of the ample renown she now enjoys.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Wait ‘Til My Bobby Gets Home
Da Doo Ron Ron
(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry
Among the Believers
All Alone On Christmas
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (sung by backing trio)
O Holy Night (sung by Milton Vann)
He’s a Rebel
I Listen to the Bells (duet with Milton Vann)
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)