Ever since Prince died, I’ve made it a mission statement to see the legends live. When Ms. Lauryn Hill came to First Avenue, I bought tickets to go with K.Raydio. Likewise, I wouldn’t have missed legend-in-the-making Beyoncé at TCF Bank Stadium last summer. So when I heard Diana Ross, 73, had booked a date at the Northrop Auditorium, I made sure to mark it on my calendar, expecting hits and star power galore. That’s exactly what she delivered.
Ms. Ross has been world-famous since before I was born, growing up in Detroit and singing with the Supremes, a U.S. group some have called the most successful of all time. They’re responsible for a scad of those Motown songs that jump into your head right when you hear the title; take “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” and “Stop! In The Name of Love.” In 1970, Ross went solo and built her own repertoire, studded with songs such as “I’m Coming Out,” “Upside Down,” and “Endless Love” (a duet with Lionel Richie). We’re talking about someone whose career is so dense I somehow forgot she starred in The Wiz (1978) opposite Michael Jackson.
During her 80 minutes onstage at the Northrop last night, Ross played nineteen of her finest, including all of the above songs except “Where Did Our Love Go.” I definitely got the impression that Ross pulls out the same stops every night — the show ran at such a clip that spontaneity felt out of the question. The only exception was during an extended “Upside Down” jam, when she invited a girl in the audience to dance onstage with her. For an absurd and sweet minute or two, Audrey skipped around, flipping her cardigan up and kicking high into the air, while Ross held the microphone toward her and tried to ask her age.
Music enthusiasts today make a lot of fuss over “manufactured” pop stars, sniffing out creative falsity in performers who don’t write their own songs. For perspective, though, Ross has never written her own music. In fact, some of her greatest songs have been covers. Last night, she performed “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell song she sent to the top of the charts in 1970, plus “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (originally performed by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers) and her version of Gloria Gaynor’s smash “I Will Survive” (written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris). She also performed several Supremes songs (“Come See About Me” and “Baby Love,” plus the obvious and aforementioned “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Stop! In The Name of Love”).
Usually, when I see a show at Northrop, I walk away longing to see the same concert at a different venue in town. But last night’s performance seemed to be made for the U of M venue. The grand theater matched the splendor of Ross’s show. The older crowd happily took their seats during ballads like “Endless Love.” And it was all over before bedtime, wrapping up before 10 p.m. The mix suffered from some questionable levels, leaving Ross’s vocals heaped under 95 decibels of guitar, bass, woodwinds, and percussion. But I’d happily see Ross there again.
Diana Ross’s daughter Rhonda also performed last night, spending 15 minutes onstage at the top of the show. “I know you came here to see my mom,” she said, coming off coy, but she and her band had a lot of fun strutting through a “Lady Marmalade” cover and five of her original songs (including standout “Grown Folk Party”). Later, she returned during show-closer “I Will Survive,” Ross’s cover of the Gloria Gaynor hit; to my bafflement, the whole band leapt into DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” in their “I Will Survive” jam, complete with both Rosses putting their hands in the air…and making ‘em stay there.
As Laura Barton pointed out for The Guardian back in 2005, Ms. Ross’s image has been carefully tailored. Under wraps are her personal issues and controversies (for example, Motown mastermind Berry Gordy is Rhonda Ross’s father, as Rhonda learned at age 13). If she ever grants interviews, they’re largely filled with fluff. But live, she’s a dream.
In an odd coincidence, jukebox show Motown: The Musical played at Minneapolis’s Orpheum Theatre last night, meaning that the character of Diana Ross appeared onstage as the real Ms. Ross in the same city on the same night. If that isn’t living legend, I’m not sure what is.