Absence does in fact make the heart grow fonder. Lionel Richie hasn't had a runaway pop smash in years. Until recently he hadn't toured the United States in a decade. And, until Thursday at PNC Music Pavilion, the 65-year-old Grammy winner had not played Charlotte since 1986. If you grew up during those 28 years, it might come as a surprise what a charismatic, dynamic, and funny performer Richie is.
Sure, fans know him as an accomplished singer and writer. Many knew him as a star of early MTV. Anyone with knowledge of pop music over the last four decades knows his songs, which he played one after the other. But those hits don't tell the whole story. It was the energy, glee, and humor with which he delivered them that made Thursday's show so memorable.
Ceelo Green, who was backed by a mostly female band wearing Olivia Newton John's skintight black pants from "Grease" in what may be the best and worst fashion statement in recent memory, opened the night with a combination of covers and hits like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Green, who hit on everything from "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" to "Jungle Boogie," knows how to start a party. But it's strange to see an artist as well known as Green having to order a crowd to its feet for a hit as big as "F*** You." The crowd complied and Green left the stage a gracious host giving ample credit to his band.
Wearing sleek all black and flanked by large screens and a top-notch band, Richie opened with 2007's "All Around the World," before reaching into his catalog of solo and Commodores hits. The crowd swooned for "Penny Lover," "Easy," and "Ballerina Girl." "You Are" was a bouncing sing-along that seemed to capture happy, carefree youth for longtime fans who raised their arms, sang and danced.
If you streamed Richie's Bonnaroo set in June then you knew what you were in for. He hit all the beats from scrunching his face while sipping wine to hilarious introductions for the trio of love songs tracing the trajectory of a relationship - "Still," "Oh No," and "Stuck On You." After a breakup "you call on your album, your CD, your cassette, your 8-track. You call on Li-o-n-el Ri-chie," he said before each one. The crowd (including my five-year-old) howled with laughter at his stories and the way he enunciated his own name.
The sound was so flawless, at least from the center of the covered pavilion, that I didn't even think about sound until the seventh song. If there was one flaw I noticed all night it was that the backing vocals were too low coming back from the bridge during "Running with the Night" - a minuscule complaint, indeed.
The place erupted for an extended version of "Dancing on the Ceiling" complete with showy guitar and sax solos. It ended with the sax player propped upside down against Richie's piano. The animated musicians seemed as enthused about playing Richie's hits as he was. They played off each other and their band leader, especially sax player Dino Soldo who Richie sprayed with Off! after someone in the front handed him a can when he complained about mosquitoes.
Retro lighting and video gave way to the Commodores' "Sail On," "Fancy Dancer," "Sweet Love" and "Lady." He had the audience carry Diana Ross' lines on a verse and chorus of "Endless Love" after teasing that he'd invited her ("She said, 'No!'"). "Say You, Say Me" served as another strong sing-along while "Brick House/Fire" had even the wait staff serving the VIP boxes dancing in the aisles.
The show closed with "Hello" and the calypso beat of "All Night Long." Before Richie paid tribute to his friend Michael Jackson with the encore of "We Are the World," he promised to come back next summer. After such a fantastic performance I doubt he or Charlotte can wait another 28 years.