Thursday, May 17, 2012

In remembrance: Donna Summer 1999 concert review

In light of Donna Summer's passing, I thought I'd post an edited version of my 1999 Universal Amphitheatre show review, which originally ran in the Press Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.) newspaper...

Unlike most disco artists who thrived during the '70s, Donna Summer was one of the few performers left standing after the genre's first wave came crashing down in 1980.

Summer's roots were in gospel music and the theater, so her talents were considerable compared with the competition. The woman could always belt out a tune with plenty of emotion.

On Saturday night at the Universal Amphitheatre (another show at Humphrey's in San Diego on Aug. 31 is sold out), Summer tried to recapture that drama from decades past and blend it into the context of her in-progress musical "Ordinary Girl." 

There was a large emphasis on Summer's recent VH1 music special "Live & More - Encore!" The program put a renewed focus on her career. She constantly referred to the cable channel, gave away tie-in CDs to fans and patterned set segments (right down to the Barbra Streisand ad-lib during "No More Tears") after the CD running order. 

Summer opened the 90-minute, 15-song set with her current dance hit "I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)," an interpretation of Andrea Bocelli & Sarah Brightman's "Time to Say Goodbye." As the eight-piece band chugged through a tempered version, Summer initially sang the rich notes shrouded behind a black curtain.

Then the singer was unveiled on a grand white stage with a walkway that resembled the gates of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion. She exited and the beat intensified. Summer's two teen-age daughters darted onstage and danced before Summer returned for a stunning vocal finish.

Thunder and lightning effects gave way to the familiar orchestral strains of "MacArthur Park" and the packed house went nuts. Summer's backing vocal trio - including husband/co-songwriter Bruce Sudano and his sister-in-law - provided supple support as the rhythm shifted into funky territory. Summer capped it off with another long sustained note ending.

The three-song theatrical segment found Summer do a long intro about her early career and how "it's hard being a diva these days." At various junctures, her daughters walked onstage, props in hand, and interacted with Summer. 

For longtime fans longing to hear a hit parade, this show came up short. Only eight bona-fide chart faves were offered up. And there were a few glaring omissions ("Dim All the Lights," "I Feel Love" and "Heaven Knows" - originally a duet with Sudano) that could have rounded things off nicely.

She picked three fans out of the audience to serve as guest backing singers for "On the Radio."
Summer and the band livened up considerably for the smoking "Bad Girls/Hot Stuff" double shot. This time clad in black lace and a feather boa, the vocal delivery was pure sass and attitude.

The guitarists came front and center to do their rock solos. The biggest surprise happened when Summer teasingly sang 30 seconds of "Love to Love You Baby" (a song she reportedly stopped performing in the '80s), then quickly bounced back to "Hot Stuff." 

Gregorian chants led off the intriguing new hi-NRG song "Love is the Healer." The band stayed funky and tight throughout. Summer left the stage again and returned in a sparkling silver dress to close the concert in high style with "Last Dance." Mirrored disco ball lights covered the amphitheater, and fans kicked up a storm. Summer and her band pulled out all the stops on the tune, which remains as romantic and uplifting as it was in 1978.

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