(This review won’t be appearing in any of them thar news-papers, not never ever. Woo-hoo! Bring on the irrelevant asides, the superfluous adverbs and the gratuitous use of the first person! At last I am free, I can hardly see in front of me!)
Oh, the sweet relief of being unshackled from professional responsibilities. As the locally sourced string section trouped onto the stage (a particular feature of the tour, which could be seen as either a magnanimous gesture or a crafty cost-cutting ploy), I found myself automatically counting the number of players. Stop that! You’re here for pleasure, not duty! (Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course…)
Thanks to some super-prompt ticket ordering manoeuvres, we had secured seats in the middle of the fifth row – so close that you have could have counted Smokey’s wrinkles, if he’d had any. My, but there’d been some work done: as Dymbel observed, the upper half of his face was all but frozen, setting off his weirdly perma-startled eyes. And oh, the outfits. Top Number One, a symphony in lilac, was so sheer that we could make out the Robinson nipples lurking beneath. There’s Up Close And Personal, and there’s Over-Sharing.
To be honest, I’d been worried all along by the cheese potential; worries that were scarcely allayed by the lovely lady backing dancers, both furiously channelling the spirit of Miss Anglia Television circa 1981 – or bearing in mind their relentlessly literal textual interpretations, perhaps it was more the spirit of Pan’s People circa 1973. For Quiet Storm, the duo pranced about in foxy rainwear, brandishing plastic brollies. For Night And Day, the lovely white lady wore a black gown and the lovely black lady wore a white gown… you get the picture? During the encore, an interminable “let’s divide you into two groups and see who can make the most noise!” excursion which was enough to put you off its central refrain (“I love it when we’re cruising together”) for ever and a day, I hissed seditiously in Dymbellina’s ear: “If Carol Vorderman and her mate come back in sailors’ hats, I might have to shoot them…”
However, it was the last violinist on the right who tickled me the most. Perched at the end of the row like a fair-haired Mona Lisa, she strived for impassivity, but failed to mask her distaste for some of the more flagrant cavortings. Classy classically-trained lady, I was with you all the way.
Equally – and this was shared by most of the local string section, none of whom had met Smokey until that afternoon – she also found it impossible to suppress her delight at getting to perform with one of the truly great soul legends. Indeed, the delight fairly rippled round the room. His first ever UK tour? (No, really, it said so in The Guardian.) Just six dates? And one of them here in Nottingham, in the comparative intimacy of the Royal Concert Hall? How blessed we were.
At the age of 67, Robinson’s voice was as clear as ever, with none of the frailties that had affected Andy Williams’ performance last Thursday. Perhaps it was a little low in the mix at the start of the set, and perhaps both the performer and his audience needed to lose that initial stiffness, before getting their respective grooves on. However, if you are going to need a couple of warm-up numbers, then you can’t bank on much better than Going To A Go-Go, I Second That Emotion and You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me. With material of that calibre, we struggled through just fine.
Three songs in, I still feared that Smokey was going to be too much of a lightweight cabaret turn. Those oddly inexpressive eyes. That simpering, I’m-Motown’s-nice-guy smile, which has always slightly put me off the man.
And then, with the slow-burning ballad Ooo Baby Baby, it all turned round. Stretching the 32 year old song way beyond its traditional outro, Smokey embarked upon an extemporised coda which steadily increased in intensity, depth and emotional acuity. With eyes screwed up in concentration, he searched within and pulled out the night’s first evidence of true soul, as opposed to placatory showboating.
From that point, Robinson’s two sides – the showman and the soul man – co-existed in a more or less easy truce, which saw him reaching out to differing elements of his disparate audience, at different times and in different ways. For those that enjoyed being conducted in suspiciously slick “impromptu” singalongs, there was ample opportunity. For the soul-buff aficionados, there were enough off-piste song choices to keep heads nodding and mental check-lists ticked off. Even the extended plug for the new covers album (Timeless Love) passed without undue discomfort. Hell, even the Stevie Wonder impersonation made us chuckle; whatever it lacked in comic genius was more than compensated by the palpable authenticity of its affection.
The selections from Smokey’s demonstrably undervalued 1980s renaissance sounded particularly fantastic, the highlight being the deliciously easy-going Just To See Her (a Number 52 smash in 1987, and hence perhaps not the wisest of choices for another attempted impromptu singalong). Having already been performed in the same venue by Andy Williams last week, the song is a recent discovery and a current favourite of mine; it’s also one of Dymbellina’s personal favourites.
As the applause started up at the end of the number, Smokey’s smiling gaze fell in our direction. Smiling back, Dymbellina and I raised our hands upwards and outwards, nodding in appreciation. Our nods were returned with an equally respectful, somewhat courtly half-bow. It was a brief but luminous moment of direct connection – and in my case at least, unprecedented in thirty years of regularly attending live shows. As such, I suspect I shall always remember it with particular fondness.
During the statutory introduce-the-band section, one player – a magisterially impassive old fella in shades, with something of the grizzled blues veteran about him, who was contributing the loveliest of guitar licks throughout – was completely overlooked. What’s the story there, I wondered. Some sort of simmering backstage enmity? A silent, sulking stand-off, of Blair/Brown proportions?
Right at the end of the main set – which was fast approaching the two-hour mark – and accompanied by opening notes of The Tracks Of My Tears – which the grizzled old fella, now spotlighted, was repeatedly picking out on solo guitar – all was explained. This was none other than Marvin “Marv” Tarplin, resident guitarist for the Miracles all through the 1960s, and a co-writer and contributor to many other classic Motown hits. Thus revealed and warmly received, Tarplin led Robinson into the night’s most sublime, spine-tingling and unequivocally soulful performance. Who cared about the silly encore which followed? In the face of such awe-inspiring, oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-we-just-SAW-that magic, it mattered not a jot.