Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Better than EVER!

I don't expect things to stay the same...though I may hope they do. I rather expect things to go south... because they often do.  So when I come upon somebody who has been around for a long time and has not only stayed the same--in all the ways I want her to--but gotten even better, it is absolutely thrilling!  This was my experience last Saturday night at The Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. 
I hadn't been to Vegas since 1975? or '76? or '77?  Who remembers.  What I do remember is that the Strip, where all the big hotel/casinos are, looked nothing then like it does now.  WOW! What a shock!  A zillion buildings in a zillion styles with a zillion people trying to get to all of them on the sidewalks, the busses, in their cars, and on the monorail.  Monorail????  Holy Moley!  Well, it was quite a lot to adjust to, and I can't say that I managed.  What saved my spirit from plummeting was resurrection.  Yes, resurrection.  In the lovely Tropicana Hotel, a casino like the old ones: small, comfortable, easy to negotiate my way to the newly revamped headliner showroom, with its rich leather booths set on graduating levels so that people on each level can see the whole stage without obstruction; three rows of tables in front of the stage; excellent acoustics; friendly and happy staff.  And a rich red glittering curtain keeping the secret of what is to come. And what is to come is a Rock 'n' Roll Legend.  A Rhythm & Blues Diva.  An Icon of Music for millions of Baby Boomers.  
The room fills to capacity.  The energy of anticipation builds.  My partner and I are in a booth in the first row of booths, ten feet from the stage, with two sisters from Houston, Texas.  We are all Gladys fans from way back, though they not quite as far back as I.  
The lights dim, the curtain shimmers, and a handsome and well-dressed young man walks to center stage.  "Hi.  I'm Craig Knight, and I want to welcome you to The Gladys Knight Theater." Gladys will tell us later he is her nephew, her brother Bubba's son (Bubba being the remaining member of The Pips) and that Craig wanted to be the one to introduce his auntie to us.  Craig says, "What's about to happen here isn't a concert.  It's an experience."  
Craig leaves the stage.  The band kicks up.  The background singers raise their voices.  The red shimmery curtain draws open.  On a video screen hung high over the rear of the stage, a train chugs silently toward us through open grassy fields. On raised platforms we now see six singers including Bubba Knight. On higher platforms we see musicians playing keyboard, bass, guitar, and percussion.  Another keyboard, lead guitar, and drums.  
White fog circles the stage floor, the singers wail, the band rocks a few blood-pumping bars.  The rear stage curtain opens...and there She is.  In a gauzy, flowing, tastefully-bejeweled white pantsuit, Gladys Knight.  The one and only, Gladys Knight!  Full of voice, strong, warm enough to raise your blood pressure, cool enough to ease it back down.
She looks fabulous!  Through opera glasses: smooth skin, gorgeous whiter-than-white teeth, and that face—bright-eyed, open, welcoming.  Gladys is still loving what she’s doing and loving us for still loving what she’s doing.
And what she’s doing is singing her heart out—as she always has.  In full command of the stage and everyone on it, the music, the lyrics, and us, oh yes, us.  Not something as mundane as our attention but our unreserved, absolute devotion to her every note, her every word, her every move, her every thing!  Keep on keepin’ on!  Oh, yeah.  We have.  We do.  And we will!
This is, you see, a trip into our own lives: our loves and losses, our hearts and souls.  Gladys Knight and her music live in our cellular memory.  She has been our companion since we first heard her sing With Ev’ry Beat of My Heart back in 1960.  From the '70's with  I Heard it Through the Grapevine, If I Were Your Woman, Neither One of Us, The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me, and Midnight Train to Georgia into the ‘80’s with Landlord, Save the Overtime, You're Number One, Lovin’ on Next to Nothin’, Love Overboard, and her quintessential rendering of I Will Survive.
You see, I am a child of Gladys Knight’s music.  My love of soul music probably birthed the first time I ever heard Gladys and the Pips.  Listening to them now I understand how the background vocals were and are like lines in a concerto.  They foreshadow, counterpoint, enhance the lead vocal.  They provide the layers and textures to deepen the story and heighten the music.  As I was listening to Midnight Train to Georgia this morning, I realized that I knew the background vocals more thoroughly than I did the lead!  And, watching Gladys onstage last Saturday night singing this song, I saw her, right after she finished singing a lead line, lower the microphone and sing the background line for her own enjoyment, then raise the mic again to sing her next lead line.  Wow!  There ya go!  
The joint is jumpin’!  We rock in our seats, we leap out of our seats in standing ovations, we scream, we applaud until our hands are blue!  She tells us, “Come on now, put your hands up and clap with me,” and we do joyously.  She says, “You’re gonna wanna sing at this part, so when I say go, sing!” and the whole room lifts in one voice.
Gladys thanks us for coming.  She tells us how important it is to her that we have loyally stayed with her for all these years.  Someone shouts from the audience, “I love you, Gladys.”  Gladys, not missing a beat says, “I heard that, and I love you, too.”  Throughout the show Gladys Knight is warm, funny, heartfelt, generous, grateful, and interactive with us, her faithful and adoring and equally grateful fans of 50 years.
Gladys says, “Ya know what I miss?  I miss romance.  Not sex.  Romance.”  With a sly side-glance she informs us, “That comes before sex.”  Laughter from all corners.
As I revisit her songs today, I realize why she misses romance—all her songs are love songs.  Various types of love: between lovers, parents and children, family, friends—love songs all.  I am so in her camp. 
Gladys takes some time to wax poetic about love and the difficulties of relationships and, eventually, says, “One day, you might even find yourself saying ‘It’s sad to think we’re not gonna make it…’” Seamlessly she has led us right into one of her biggest hits, Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Good-bye).  Chills all over!   
Finally, after numerous standing screaming ovations, an hour and a half of solid give-it-her-all performing, Gladys says, “I gotta go.”  I don’t want her to go.  Nobody wants her to go.   She sings one more song The End of the Road, an inspiring message about reaching the end of our own road.  On the screen behind her shines a scene of a country road at the end of which is a rainbow--we have come full circle.  Gladys's message is clear, and soooo uplifting! 
Roses are offered up to her by a loving fan.  Others rush the stage to shake her hand.  She walks from one end of the stage to the other two, three times and shakes every hand, makes every friend feel important, blows kisses to those standing in other areas of the showroom, listens to “It’s our 50th anniversary,” and congratulates the silver-haired couple, while we who are not rushing the stage, but may want to, scream and yell and applaud like there is no tomorrow. Who cares about tomorrow!  
There is only toKnight!  I consider rushing.  But don’t.  Instead, as she is approaching the stage nearest our booth, I blow her a big kiss.  She sees me.  Makes eye contact and answers me by blowing a kiss.  WOW!!  Gladys!  She has seen me!  We have communicated with each other!  In the language of love.
She eventually grooves on back to the rear center stage, roses in arm, and takes her graceful closing bow.  The rear curtain closes.  The big red front curtain draws together.  The band is still rockin’, the singers wailing their last bars of this extraordinary experience.  Craig Knight was right.  
This was so much more than a concert.  Because Gladys Knight is so much more.  And she gives us her all.  And I, for one, am resurrected.  Totally revitalized in body, mind, and spirit. The life force is flowing through me like it hasn’t probably since the last time I was fortunate enough to be in Gladys Knight’s audience, which was somewhere in the very early ‘90’s,  shortly after she went out on her own.  
A  septuagenarian friend of mine (an accomplished singer herself) told me recently when speaking about seeing singers in person, "It's so hard to be close to greatness these days..."  I agreed.  But last Saturday night I was indeed close to greatness.  And  I can tell you this, my friends, I will not wait another two decades to do it again.  
“Gladys, Gladys, Gladys,” I’ll be back to see you pronto, my dear!!!! Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you so very much for EVERYTHING!!!