The laws of physics probably prevent the government from using Lionel Richie’s smile as a source of renewable energy. But by golly, that ought not to stop them from trying.
If there’s a more infectiously joyous 68-year-old singer working the circuit today, you’d have a hard time convincing the 12,000-plus fans at Tampa’s Amalie Arena on Friday, who spent more than 90 minutes dancing on the ceiling and swaying in the warmth of Richie’s thermonuclear grin.
“This is gonna be one of those nights to remember!” he shouted, working the mic with the passion of a preacher. “I want you to look around right where you are, because even though you came as couples, you are not alone. The people around you, you will know very well before the night’s over with. Because those are the people you’re going to hear singing for the rest of the night!”
Richie’s calling this his All the Hits Tour, and considering the sheer volume of solid gold classics he doled out, it’s hard to dispute him – especially considering he brought as an opener Mariah Carey, who has more No. 1 singles than any solo artist in history (more on her in a minute).
But then, who would ever dispute Richie, the man who wrote We Are the World, over anything? After all this marvelous mustachioed man has given us over the past 50 years?
“If it happened in love, you came my way,” he said. “When you were partying in college or high school, you came by me. If you got engaged, you came by me. When you fell in love and said I do, you came by me!”
Striding out in a platinum blazer, his arms albatross-wide and his smile somehow stretching wider, Richie never bothered the crowd with anything less than his best, crooning opener Easy in his melted-butter tenor, and soon following it with the pina-colada-soaked Penny Lover and impossibly uplifting You Are.
See, soft rock ain’t shlock in Richie’s captivating hands. The way he beamed through Say You, Say Me, or coaxed a full, disco-ball-lit arena into cooing Hello felt like pure magic, polished with his own perspiration. The way he ended Three Times a Lady, tenderly sustaining the word looooooove through the pucker pinched between his soul patch and ‘stache, was even better. And if you didn’t sniffle just a little during We Are the World – a song preceded by shout-outs to fallen peers like Natalie Cole, David Bowie, George Michael and Prince – you are clearly a replicant and must be stopped at all costs.
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And anytime he cranked up the funk for a dance number, it was on. Running With the Night, the Commodores’ Brick House and Fire, and above all the karamu-startin’ All Night Long (All Night), imbued the arena with glee.
"I came here tonight to be dignified,” he said. “That ain't gonna happen, because I’m realizing tonight, y’all are on another level!"
If Richie was the night’s high priest of positivity, Carey was its enchantress of intrigue. Who knew what we’d get after her tire fire of a performance in Times Square this past New Year’s Eve?
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Carey’s due for a major stage comeback, but in her first Tampa show in more than a decade, it was tough to tell just how much she wants it. Her voice was swaddled so deep in the big, enveloping cushion of her too-loud band that it was impossible to discern just how live she really was -- a fact made all too clear when she handed the mic for a song to backup singer Trey Lorenz, who performed with Richie-like volume and vitality.
That said, reports of Carey’s death as a diva have been greatly exaggerated. Statuesque in a black robe and dress -- no, literally, she mostly stood still as a statue, occasionally gliding about with all the urgency of melting ice -- Carey took a few songs to warm to the room, coasting through I'm That Chick, Love Hangover and Heartbreaker before clawing into some vampish runs on Touch My Body.
This was Mimi's game plan most of the night -- controlled and contained, with little of the vocal exuberance of her early work, until a song got her really worked up. Don't Forget About Us lit to life with an impressively impassioned, sustained closing run; the B-boy jam It's Like That exploded with powerhouse points of vocal acrobatics.
If Carey can do all this for parts of certain songs, why doesn't she do it for all of every song? Why doesn't she own and command her formidable vocal legacy? It could be that her new stuff simply doesn't demand it. Two of her oldest tunes, the gospel-jazzy Vision of Love and the uber-inspirational ballad Hero, were filled with rambunctious runs and belt-it-out bars fans yearned to hear.
But as every diva knows, it's a diva's prerogative to do as a diva pleases. And if that bothered you, just know that Carey got a taste of her own medicine when she brought her 6-year-old twins Moroccan and Monroe to the stage during Always Be My Baby. They were precious as buttons ("I love you, mommy!" Morocco squeaked) but not quite as cooperative as Carey had evidently hoped. Whatever dance or stage trick she was trying to get them to pull, they weren't having it. Wonder where they picked that up?
Certainly not from Richie, a man whose reserves of audience-pleasing charm seemed inexhaustible. After leading the arena in the absolutely ecstatic Dancing on the Ceiling – splicing in a few bars of Van Halen’s Jump for good measure – he stopped stock-still and shook his head in amazement.
“What the hell was that?” he asked. “I haven’t seen dancing like that since 1978, y’all!”
Maybe Richie’s smile can’t power the planet. But a time machine? For 12,000 fans in Tampa, you better believe it.
-- Jay Cridlin