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Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Smokey Robinson @ The Riverside Theater

Aug. 9, 2014

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Photo credit: Dale Reince
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As singers slow down in their golden years, so too do their performances. Concerts that used to promise the spectacle of exacting showmanship gradually become instead about the smaller pleasures of simply drinking up the presence of a legend, however far removed from his or her prime that legend may be. Setlists become shorter and the breaks between songs grow longer and chattier, with downtime built into the show to help the singer conserve his energy and voice. Over decades on the road, Smokey Robinson has adopted many of these workarounds, but, as the Motown legend demonstrated Saturday night at the Riverside Theater, slowing down with age doesn’t mean an artist can’t deliver a show with real personality.

At 74, Robinson’s voice isn’t nearly what it was. Time has eroded the higher registers from his range, leaving behind a dusky, jazzy tone that flatters the smoother material the singer has gravitated to since the ’70s, but shows its limitations on the spry soul numbers of Robinson’s youth, especially Miracles hits like “I Second That Emotion” and “The Tears of a Clown.” Yet Robinson, backed by a nine-piece band dressed in formal whites, was less interested in flawlessly recreating those oldies than in simply showing the crowd a good time. Performing “My Girl” during a medley highlighting the hits that he wrote for The Temptations, he handed singing duties over to the audience, which he deemed “The Riverside Theater Choir,” and he continued to put that boisterous choir to work for the rest of the night.

The show became looser and chattier in its second half, as Robinson shared stories from his Motown days, offered his Stevie Wonder impression, bantered with his backup singers and joked with the crowd about the pair of leggy dancers who periodically joined him on stage for a few sultry dance moves. “It’s a hard job,” he said of working with the shapely twosome, “but somebody’s gotta do it.” The show took on an unexpectedly sexual charge in its final stretch, as Robinson performed slow jams from his 2009’s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, including “Love Bath,” the weirdest song Chef from “South Park” never sang. Robinson ran his hands over his chest and his leather pants as he crooned with pleasure, while the audience cheered each display of virility.

For his closing number, Robinson relied once again on what’s become his greatest strength: crowd work. He called some fans on stage and pitted the left and right halves of the Riverside against each other in a contest to out-sing each other to his 1979 hit “Cruisin’.” It’s a routine many legacy acts fall back on live, but Robinson committed himself to it more than most, drawing the entire audience to their feet, inciting them to repeatedly shout the chorus to one of the last songs anybody associates with shouting. Robinson’s gifts may be diminished, but his effect on the crowd remains undeniable.