Just one week from today (Saturday, September 7th, to be exact), Diana Ross will take the stage at the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta, part of the 2013 Live Nation Concert Series. Currently crisscrossing North America on a breathlessly paced tour, Miss Ross is once again garnering rave reviews for her stage show; after her recent stop in Milwaukee, writer Piet Levy of the Journal Sentinel commented, “…to call the show nostalgic is almost belittling. Nostalgia acts, on the road as long as Ross has been doing it, so often burn dimly off the vapors of faded memories. They’re sad ghosts of the glory days. But Ross’ show had a pulse, a magic that made it alive in the moment, even as it was saluting the past.”
Indeed, with no new material to promote (her last studio album was 2007’s I Love You), Diana Ross’s current tour truly is a celebration of her storied career, dedicated to the numerous classic songs she’s made famous since her initial chart-toppers in the 1960s. And without any new songs or major surprises in the setlist to focus on, it’s also an opportunity for fans to re-live their own memories seeing the diva over the years. There are fans — many of whom are frequent commenters right here — who have seen Diana Ross in concert so many times they’ve lost count. There are those with incredible stories of being pulled up onstage, getting a peak backstage, and even sharing a moment or two with the singer outside the venue. At its best, for the fans who’ve stuck by her through it all, a Diana Ross concert is more than a performance. It’s a total experience.
And so, a week before this writer’s next Diana Ross experience, it’s time to re-live a few of my favorite moments from Diana Ross concerts. This will be the fifth time I’ve seen Miss Ross live, and the first since her I Love You tour in ’07. The first was in 1995, just weeks before her Motown CD Take Me Higher hit shelves. I was such a vocal Diana Ross fan that kids I barely even knew at school were bringing me the newspaper advertisements about her appearance near Indianapolis. My poor parents were forced to skip a few hours of work to buy me tickets. The night of the show, I was shaking. When she appeared on stage, I temporarily lost the ability to breathe. It’s something that just might happen again in a few days.
1) Reach Out, I’ll Be There (Return To Love tour): There were plenty of surprises for fans the night of June 25, 2000, as Diana Ross and The Supremes hit the stage at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise, Florida. Complete performances of songs like “Forever Came Today” and “In And Out Of Love” were totally unexpected, and solo performances by 70s Supremes Lynda Laurence (on “Up The Ladder To The Roof”) and Scherrie Payne (“Stoned Love”) were fantastic and immediate audience favorites. The fact that the three women — amidst a ridiculous amount of controversy over the authenticity of the “reunion” — looked and sounded so great was perhaps a surprise to some, too. But the clear highlight of the night was the group’s final song, a soulful and redemptive version of Diana’s 1971 single “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” from her brilliant but often-overlooked Surrender LP. The song is one of the great highlights of the Ross solo discography, a sexy and ultimately soaring re-working of the more familiar Four Tops version; it wasn’t a major hit for Ross, and therefore isn’t one she kept in her act over the years. Here, however, she brilliantly chose it to close the show, using the gorgeous voices of Laurence and Payne to replace the original Ashford and Simpson gospel-ish backgrounds. Diana’s voice was strong and controlled during the song’s sultry, spare opening; though she’d been pushing her voice to the limit for the entire show, her sparkling soprano rang out like a bell during lines like, “And through your tears…you look around…” The song’s emotional climax gave her a chance to do some belting, which to my ears sounded dead-on and incredibly powerful, especially when bolstered by the spine-tingling support offered by the Supremes. As the three women ascended a large staircase, exiting the stage, it was a powerful and memorable moment, and a perfect close to an exciting night of music.
2) Don’t Explain (I Love You tour): Diana’s emotional rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” was a highlight of the 1972 Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack, and it’s a song the singer and actress clearly loves; it is now one of the few jazz numbers she consistently performs in concert, and it’s always a vocal showcase for the singer during her stage shows. On the evening of April 24, 2007 — during a tour stop at the Hard Rock Live in Orlando, Florida — Miss Ross offered up a deeply felt reading of the song, one that left the entire audience completely silent. Miss Ross had delivered a high-energy show that night, opening (of course) with “I’m Coming Out” and running through crowd-pleasing uptempo numbers like “The Boss,” “Upside Down,” and even “Ease On Down The Road.” The atmosphere was party-like in the relatively intimate Hard Rock Live, but Diana’s entrance with the trademark flower in her ear (her nod to Billie Holiday) signaled a shift in tone. Her band — phenomenal as always — offered up beautiful, morose backing as Diana began to sing the familiar opening, “Hush now…Don’t Explain…” Her voice, slightly ragged after belting out so many hits, was instantly restored to the warm, smooth tones expected of her when she sings jazz tunes; the crystal-clear delivery communicated exactly what the lyrics don’t say, revealing a woman resigned to her own love-addiction. The audience — standing for much of the show — sat during this one, and it was so quiet Diana could have been alone in the theatre. My good friend next to me turned and whispered, “What a voice!” Indeed.
3) Take Me Higher (Always Is Forever/Take Me Higher tour): “For nearly two hours she strutted her stuff, danced and slipped into one sequined gown after another. The first was a minidress that was as hot as her entry song, ‘Take Me Higher.'” So wrote Sally Falk Nancrede in The Indianapolis Star following Diana’s performance at Indiana’s Deer Creek Music Center on August 30, 1995. The show that night was filled with tracks from her then-forthcoming CD, including “Voice Of The Heart,” “Only Love Will Conquer All,” “Don’t Stop,” and “I Will Survive” (the singer, by the way, used “Only Love…” as a chance to walk into the audience, much to its delight). The new tracks sounded incredibly fresh and exciting, and the singer performed with the kind of energy usually displayed by a newcomer. This was especially true during the opening, as she bounded down a large staircase on stage (something re-created for the “Take Me Higher” music video) in her short black dress and mass of bouncing curls. Though the single hadn’t been released yet, it was an obvious choice to open the show; the catchy song (which would eventually hit #1 on the dance chart) had the audience on its feet, and is memorable enough that many in the audience were singing along by the end. Diana’s talented band and background singers sounded particularly strong on this track, and the entire crew would keep the pace of the show brisk and vibrant. Diana had every reason to feel optimistic during the show, performing some of the best new material she’d recorded in years. (And — sidenote — the show proved quite amusing later in the night when the abundance of bugs started really bothering Miss Ross. At one point, she had to cover herself with bug repellant lotion — right onstage! As noted in the newspaper review, “She couldn’t finish ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ but she won over the audience as a trade-off.”)
4) Amazing Grace (I Love You tour): Diana Ross closed her April 25, 2007 concert at the King Center For The Performing Arts in Melbourne, Florida with a song that wasn’t a hit for her; in fact, it’s a song that was never even released as a single. Her final performance of the night was an incredible, a capella reading of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” a song she’s performed numerous times and that was committed to record on 1993’s Christmas In Vienna. The occasion was the presence of her friend Pastor Wintley Phipps, a man who’d sung at her 1986 wedding to Arne Naess and wrote her 1987 single “Tell Me Again,” featured on the LP Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. Phipps serves at the nearby Palm Bay Seventh-day Adventist Church, so it made sense for him to be in the audience. Once introduced, the pastor joined Miss Ross onstage and the two sang the song together, a striking duet in which her velvet voice and his booming baritone meshed perfectly. It was a moving, haunting moment — definitive proof of Miss Ross’s interpretive gift and an unexpected treat for fans expecting nothing more than a night of greatest hits.
I can’t wait to add another memory to this list — if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that there will be at least one moment from Diana’s upcoming Atlanta concert that will stick with me forever. But, until then, I want to hear your stories. What “shining moments” from Diana Ross concerts have stuck with you?