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Smokey Robinson @ BBC Electric Proms


United Kingdom United Kingdom | 26 October 2009

Stage lights flicker on a sea of bobbing bald patches, like rays of sunshine rippling through water. “I thought you guys had tickets or passes to see the show, but I know after that that you are the London choir,” booms Smokey Robinson. His band, three singers and the entire BBC Concert Orchestra are being drowned out by the audience harmonising to The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’ - Smokey wrote it.

To call someone a pop legend is clichéd, but there’s no other way to describe the man who, as vice-president of Motown for over twenty-five years, brought the world songs like ‘Going to a Go-Go’ with his group The Miracles, and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Tears of a Clown’ - Smokey wrote them both.

Incidentally it’s ‘Going to a Go-Go’ that opens the next hour and twenty minutes, which sees the legend perform hits from five decades, in between plugging his new album, ‘Time Flies When You’re Having Fun’.

Motown is music that has cheated time, and today it is being performed in a venue that can be credited with the same achievement. From amongst the Camden Roundhouse’s sleek cast iron columns and up to the imposing wooden dome roof (it’s an old steam engine repair shed) you can taste the ghosts of a past industrial energy that makes gigs there all the more electrifying.
 
Says Smokey: “We came to be intimate. To be close. To touch, feel… and everything else. Right now, however, we are going to boogie.” A medley of shining Detroit staples set the scene.
 
There’s no need to describe what ‘I Second That Emotion, or ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me’ sound like, as everyone recognises Motown’s mix of bouncy bass lines, brassy beats, cool sax and hi-hat hits. The years have earned Robinson’s voice some husky undertones and he tackles those high notes with noticeable concentration, but the overall sound - while murkier than on the original 78s and 45s he recalls during the set - is still stacked with soul.

Detroit disks give way to swing favourite ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, and an impassioned cover of Norah Jones’ ‘Don’t Know Why’ from the new record.

Fifty years’ experience has earned Robinson a formidable stage presence. At nearly seventy, he still jumps, shimmies, and wiggles on stage. In fact the only thing giving his years away is his wardrobe: high-waisted flared jeans and tucked-in shirt, buttons enough-undone to reveal some chest bling, true to the (naff?) style of his prime.
 
Throughout, the concert is strewn with anecdotes from Smokey’s past, told with a genuine fondness by the man himself, over a jazzy bed that isn’t a million years away from the Pink Panther theme. Production is super-polished.
 
As for the new album, it seems to be an eclectic affair, with guest appearances, Smokey tells us, from India Arie, Carlos Santana and…Joss Stone. Oh no, not bloody Joss Stone! Please don’t let her do a cameo here, please, no!
 
Apparently, Joss really wanted to be here tonight, but she’s stuck in Africa (phew!) so backing singer Carrie steps in for Robinson-Stone racy duet, ‘You’re the One for Me’. Robinson pulls the young singer up against him, hands a-wandering. The dark horse. He does it again later when the slinky brunette joins him for 1980s hit ‘Being with You’. Granted the sexagenarian’s sex appeal is a subjective issue, but this is just a bit cringey.

Other new songs include ‘Girlfriend’, which features a flute and something of a Bee Gees 70s disco vibe, as well as the cheesy title track, ‘Time Flie’s, a pedestrian soul ballad, but here backed by sublime strings - an opportunity for the BBC Orchestra to show off.

In fact, with the exception of the brass, the BBC Concert Orchestra spends the most part of the show somewhat subordinated. Smokey had brought his own double bass and wind instrumentalists. Even the lighting guys want to pull the focus forwards to keyboards and electric guitar. It’s only when Smokey points out the jolly be-ponytailed musical director, Demetrius, conducting the players animatedly in the second to last number, that they get noticed.
 
Capitalising on this newfound stardom, the orchestra then gives an epic finalé. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ most famous hit ‘Tracks of my Tear’s starts toned down, blowing up into a phenomenal gospel jam, with band, orchestra, audience and of course, Smokey.
 
For more on the BBC Electric Proms see: www.bbc.co.uk/electricproms 

By Kae Karadelis.

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