Gladys Knight with special guests The Whispers at NJPAC

Gladys Knight The WhispersIt was a double-bill last night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center with the Whispers and Gladys Knight performing at the venue’s Prudential Hall. Celebrating 52 years in the business and still going strong, the three remaining founding members of the group, the Scott twins Walter and Wallace and Leaveil Degree, took us on a trip down memory lane with their old-school soul singing and lots of hits from the 70s and 80s. I bought the “Love Is Where You Find It” LP in 1981 and I think it is one of their best records so it was especially rewarding to hear several songs from that particular album, like “In The Raw”, the title track, and “Say Yes”.

The Scott twins still have their signature fluid and original sound at 73 years old and the show was a decent mix of their uptempo chart hits and some of their better ballad material. “Keep On Lovin’ Me” (1983), “Rock Steady” (1987), “It’s A Love Thing” (1980), and of course “And The Beat Goes On” were all part of the mix, as were the ballads “Lady”, the afore-mentioned “Say Yes” or “In The Mood”. And with “(Olivia) Lost And Found”, they had reached something like a climax in their performance. I wasn’t too happy with the sound, though. With three keyboards on stage, it was sometimes hard to figure out how to separate them and the vocals were too loud. And the video projections were really unnecessary.

The red curtain rose again after a short break to make way for Gladys Knight who made her entrance from behind the middle of the stage after a short introductory medley. Simply looking amazing in her silver dress (and really shining like a star since all of her nine band members were in black), she started off with the funky “The Nitty Gritty” and the late 80s hit “Love Overboard” and very early in the show featured her young protégé, the singer Avehre, on an especially arranged “If I Were Your Woman” where Avehre did the male part by using the lyrics of “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars. Smart move.

It was especially moving to have about 2.500 people, Dionne Warwick among them (the show was almost sold-out), sing along to “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me”. She did an amazing job on two Gershwin standards where her signature powerful voice with that slightly raspy inflection came through: “The Man I Love” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” were perfect vehicles to show her incredible flexibility and also why she still has one of the most distinguished voices around. And yes you could sense her Vegas influence here and there but still, several standing ovations were justified, like after her groundbreaking, soul-stirring performance of “The Way We Were”.

Speaking of flexibility, not only did she excel with the Great American Songbook and her own classics, but she also included a short Gospel segment which is a main part of her musical legacy, and a Prince medley, mainly performed by her four-piece background vocalist ensemble, with Gladys chiming back in for “Purple Rain”. Other memorable tracks included her “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination”, a delicious “Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)”, and the rousing finale, the splendid “Midnight Train To Georgia”. What a ride!

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