His dip into musical past brings Richie close to fans

Critic's Corner//Music

Music Review

November 07, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Lionel Richie wanted to get closer to his fans - literally. After nearly a decade away from the stage, he has embarked on a national tour of medium-sized venues. During Sunday night's stop at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the pop-soul legend said he wanted to know whether he's still "got it."

"I've missed you," the Alabama native told the full house of mostly baby boomers.

And it felt genuine. For nearly two hours, the 57-year-old singer-songwriter - looking trim, well-groomed and stylish in all-black attire - oozed warmth and charisma. Richie chatted between his greatest hits, which he performed with plenty of energy.

Although he has a Top 10 album in stores (the forced, mostly boring Coming Home) and a single in the upper reaches of adult R&B charts (the tepid "I Call It Love"), Richie sang nearly all his '80s solo hits and several of his '70s gems with the Commodores. He tossed in only two songs from the new CD - the hit single and a midtempo number, "What You Are" - and they were the only half-hearted performances of the night.

There was no opening act - as if Richie really needs one. And his loose, enthusiastic five-piece band didn't introduce the star with a customary uptempo number. Instead, Richie strolled onstage to a standing ovation, flashing a mouthful of amazingly white teeth. Then he sat at the piano and crooned "Hello," his melodramatic and often lampooned ballad that was ubiquitous on pop radio in 1984.

Too bad the sound system was muddied, marring the first three or four numbers. But once that problem was corrected, you could clearly hear that Richie's smooth, expressive voice has improved. It's more textured these days, even velvety in some spots. And he sounds more assured crooning the soul-lite ballads that made him a global sensation more than 20 years ago - even if he's now best known as the father of the incredible shrinking tabloid star Nicole Richie.

"We just want to give you nothing but music," Richie said, pacing the front of the stage. "We're gonna do the Commodores, the '80s, the '90s, the 2000s. Can't give you nothing further than 2006."

Wisely, he stuck with his bread-and-butter hits of the Reagan era. Although uptempo songs such as "Running With the Night" and "Dancing on the Ceiling" have become dated, they still evoke good times, transporting you to the days of leg warmers and Pac-Man. Most of the house was up and rocking during those numbers. And middle-aged women shamelessly rushed the stage to shake Richie's hand or touch his well-shod feet. The star ate it up, shooing away the one security guard to allow the women to get closer.

The most intimate part of the show came midway, when the band took a break and left Richie alone at the piano, where he warmly revisited his best ballads: "Still," "Sail On," "Oh No" and "Stuck on You." The concert, in fact, teemed with Richie's slow songs. But even with all the mellowness and the chattiness between numbers, the pacing never lagged. Richie's ingratiating, refreshingly unpretentious manner was magnetic and kept things moving.

If the music at the beginning of the show was easy, the ending was funky. Richie went back to his heady years with the Commodores, leaving the house dancing to "Brick House," perhaps the most co-opted single in the funk canon. And by the time he finished "All Night Long" for the encore, the man had sweated through his second black shirt of the evening.

Yes, Richie's still got it.


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