Lionel Richie @ Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Vienna, VA

Live Reviews | Jul 17th, 2019

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Date: July 15th, 2019
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If Lionel Richie has a secret for his on-stage energy at age 70, he isn’t sharing it—but he doesn’t need to. The proof was in the nearly two-hour performance Richie is sharing with audiences on his “Hello Hits Tour,” which came to Northern Virginia’s Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts Monday evening.

But it didn’t start off quite so well. On this particularly warm evening, a sold-out crowd awaited anxiously nearly 40 minutes past the 8 p.m. start time for the performer, with the natives restless and nearby seatmates screaming to the stage for the show to start. My fiancee looked to me, with the notion passing between us that a disaster might have been on our hands.

Then the house lights dimmed, and a panoply of visual and sound effects accompanied the backup band as they took their places—with some stage lights even trained right into our eyes for some strange reason. What was happening?

Richie then strolled on from stage left, dressed all in black and with a sparkly blazer over his trim frame. He seemed to have been forgiven for his tardiness by the sweaty crowd, but would it be enough?

“Running With the the Night” was spirited, though Richie sounded flat on more than a few notes. However, that million-dollar smile flashed as the song ended and the performer held his arms wide as if to say, “It’s all great, ain’t it?” After an extremely hearty welcome to the thousands gathered, Richie then stepped to the piano for a melding of “Easy” and “My Love,” staples of the easy listening FM band.

Despite a few more pitch issues on some of the ensuing songs, what Richie proved from there on out is that he is an absolute master at seducing a crowd into the palm of his hand, whether he was swooning them with “Stuck on You” or pulling everyone to their feet for the rocking “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

He spoke to the crowd frequently, making light of the thousands—including himself—drenched in perspiration and sharing with the gathered the story of a fan who had come backstage before the show, then having the cameramen find that very man in the seats for a laugh.

Richie also made no distinction between a young fan in the front row who said he was 12 and the grandmothers dancing nearby. He’s lived long enough to have three generations of fans, and jested that the youngest among them would see “Mommy and Granny” engaging in some dance moves they had never before seen (and might have questions about).

Furthermore, he had no compunctions sharing his continued faith in the sexienss of his songs, saying that, as a performer, it’s his job to “rev them up,” and for the men in the crowd to “finish the job” when they get home.

Richie’s stage persona is joyous and bouncy, and, with his ear-to-ear grin and cool swagger and patter with the audience in between songs, bears more than a passing resemblance to the high-energy stage antics of Richard Pyror (minus the saucy language). If there had been any doubts early on, by now they were surely vanquished.

A brisk mini-set of songs from Richie’s time with the Commodores followed, including “Three Times a Lady,” “Sail On” and “Just to Be Close to You.” He said he had been asking Diana Ross for decades to join him onstage for “Endless Love” but has been continually rebuffed, so the women of the audience would have to fill in instead, which they did gamely. This was followed by “Brick House,” which brought the audience to its feet yet again.

Of the power of music, Richie is an unquestionable authority. He caused a bit of a chuckle by saying that he finds it interesting that people cry during his happy songs and smile during his sad songs.

“Music,” he said, “is about memories.”

Whatever was going on at the time you first heard that song is what you, the listener, bring to it, he opined, and closed the profound thought by thanking his audiences over a half-century for sharing his music and basically making it theirs as much as his.

And no matter where he goes in the world, he said, everyone sings along with “Hello,” that staple ballad, and the Wolf Trap audience obliged too. Then on to his Oscar-winning “Say You Say Me” (from the 1985 film “White Nights”), which had many couples swaying back and forth (including the two of us, who were captured singing along on the big screen).

While most audiences today probably know Richie from his recent stint as a judge on “American Idol,” for his curtain-closer he reached far back to arguably his most renowned composition. “In times like these,” he said, it was important to “come together.”

It could be only one song. Richie pointed to the heavens in salute to his co-writer, Michael Jackson (whose flaws as a human—which went hand in hand with his unquestioned genius—have been especially highlighted this year thanks to the HBO documentary), before absolutely bringing down the house with “We Are the World.”

Richie returned for a one-song encore of “All Night Long,” with the packed house joining him on every lyric and every asked-for clap and wave.

Performers of a certain age are sometimes cynically greeted with an attitude that they are doing it for the money, one final victory lap. Phoning it in. True, Richie made us wait for the better part of an hour on a hot and sweaty night to join us, but by the time he left us nearly two hours later, we were all the gladder for it, having witnessed a true professional at the top of his abilities.

Never mind the few flat notes here and there.


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