There’s just something about that voice. It’s nearly impossible to describe: Is it smoky? Is it smooth? Is it rough like sandpaper or is it thick with emotion? Gladys Knight is a once-in-a-lifetime vocalist, a woman who was clearly born to sing and gifted with a wholly unique instrument. And more than 50 years into her legendary career, that instrument is as impressive and effective as ever, as the singer proved during an 80-minute set at the Atlanta Botanical Garden Sunday night.
The setting, it should be noted, couldn’t have been more appropriate for an evening with the Empress of Soul. Atlanta is her town, after all; she was born in Atlanta, recorded her first hit song here (1961’s “Every Beat Of My Heart”), and immortalized her home state forever with the 1973 #1 hit “Midnight Train To Georgia.” The summer concert series at Atlanta Botanical Garden places musical artists in an outdoor setting that is at once intimate and expansive; under the open sky and with skyscrapers providing a backdrop, audiences crowd up to the stage on a lush, green lawn, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow fans. Once the sun set and a cool breeze began to sweep across the lawn, it was as magical an evening as one could hope for.
Gladys took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., in a form-fitting red ensemble and looking impossibly young and full of energy, and opened the show with her 1987 hit “Love Overboard.” After warning the crowd that she was going to take them “way back” — she moved into that first hit song, “Every Beat Of My Heart,” which she explained had been released without her knowledge and which she first heard walking down the street outside an Atlanta music store and suddenly recognizing her own voice. After a lengthy “rap session” with the crowd, during which she encouraged fans to speak back to the stage and expressed her sincere gratitude for their support over the years, Ms. Knight delivered one of the highlights of the night, her 1974 hit “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” No longer performing with The Pips, three young singers did a superb job backing Gladys and capturing the song’s famous harmonies, and Knight’s voice sounded nearly identical to the performance captured forever on record.
Along with offering up powerful and pitch-perfect renditions of Motown hits including “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye),” and “If I Were Your Woman,” Gladys Knight presented a few surprises, including a brief take on Sam Smith’s recent hit “Stay With Me” and a “Hello” medley during which she combined both the Lionel Richie and Adele hits of the same title. Her voice is in astoundingly good shape, seemingly untouched by the passage of time, and she remains a sharp, very funny lady, as evidenced by her playful banter between each song. She did a lot of “mothering” of her band during the show, dispensing little bits of wisdom and teasing them about their youth; it’s clear that she has a close bond with her musicians and background singers. Those young singers did a tremendous job with a Prince tribute medley, energizing the crowd with several of the late singer’s hits before Gladys returned to the mic for a powerful take on “Purple Rain,” and the evening ended with the singer’s biggest hit, the #1 pop and R&B classic “Midnight Train To Georgia.” The entire crowd rose to its feet for this final number, taking on the role of the Pips and singing along in what became an extended celebration of both Atlanta and the famous woman born there.
Throughout the show, Gladys Knight repeatedly thanked the audience for allowing her so many years of being able to record great music. But after a superb evening of hearing that voice — that impossible-to-describe, but unforgettable voice — it’s obvious that as long as seasoned pros like Gladys Knight continue sharing their gifts, audiences are the ones who should be offering thanks.