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4th July 2022

Live Review: Diana Ross at AO Arena

Theatre Editor Jay Darcy reviews the Original Diva, Diana Ross, at AO Arena – where she played as part of her farewell UK Thank You Tour.
Live Review: Diana Ross at AO Arena
Photo: Jay Darcy @ The Mancunion.

Diana Ross is back in the UK for the first (and final) time in 15 years. Before beginning the UK leg of the Thank You Tour, she closed the Jubilee celebrations. She opened the tour with performances at Cardiff Castle and the Cambridge Club Festival, before playing a few arenas, beginning with the AO Arena in Manchester.

Diana Ross’ opening act was the adorable British-Moroccan Zak Abel – who I had heard of, but I was unfamiliar with his music. Abel only found out he was opening for Ross the day before. He told us that he is a huge fan so it was an honour to be there. He has a stunning voice, and I particularly enjoyed his charismatic performance of the catchy ‘Be Kind’, which involved a little audience participation. It might have been wise to perform his only UK top 20 hit, ‘Unmissable’ (Gorgon City featuring Zak Abel), but Abel instead chose to promote his new music (and his merchandise). It was a sweet showcase of his music, and it was great to see a habibi representing!

Ross was on shortly after Abel. She might be the Original Diva, but she did not keep the audience waiting.

As is tradition, she came out to I’m Coming Out – but not before a video montage celebrating Ross’ career (images of her albums, etc.) played on the screens. Ross began singing the iconic opening of the song, before the curtain dropped dramatically to reveal her backing singers and band. Ross then strutted her way onstage and sang the rest of the song.

She wore a gorgeous, glittery, orange dress, complete with a huge piece of material that formed a cape behind her skirt. At first, she held it in her arms, before letting it drop to the ground. As she moved, it flowed graciously. She looked like a mermaid.

It was a little strange to go from one of her signature hits to the little-known ‘More Today Than Yesterday’ – though the song is a staple of her concerts.

Ross then announced that she would be singing some hits by The Supremes – of which she was the lead singer during their more commercially successful period (indeed, the band was renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes).

Whilst the previous two dates had started with ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ – the band’s first number one single (following a string of unsuccessful singles that lead to the group being named the “No-Hit Supremes”) – it has sadly been cut from the setlist. Instead, she weirdly started this section with ‘My World is Empty Without You’ – one of the few songs written and produced for the Supremes by Motown’s main production team of Hollan-Dozier-Holland to not reach number one on the US charts. The Supremes had 5 consecutive number ones and 12 overall – more than any other group and joint 6th place (with Madonna) amongst artists with the most numbers ones – so why sing one of their lesser hits?

She then sang ‘Baby Love’ – the band’s second US and first UK number one – which was a real riot with the audience, as was ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ (complete with the routine). It was in between these two numbers that she detached the puffy skirt/cape thing, allowing her to move around more freely and do those iconic dance moves.

The Supremes section ended with ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘Love Child’. Sadly, ‘Come See About Me’ – which was placed in between these two songs on the first date – has also been cut from the set. I had been so excited to sing, “Smiles have all turned to tears, but tears won’t wash away the fears” at the top of my lungs, but alas…

Ross then went away for her first costume change, only to return in a luscious yellow gown and a massive shawl, complete with sleeves. The rest of the concert was made up of songs from her solo career, beginning with electrifying performance of ‘Chain Reaction’ – her second UK number one (though, surprisingly, not a hit in the US). My dad often played this old banger in his “old banger” of a car; it was my introduction to the legend that is Ms Ross. Steps memorably covered this song, and they performed it at this very arena last year. I always turned my nose up at their covers of ‘Chain Reaction’ and Kylie Minogue‘s ‘Better the Devil You Know’, though they were both fantastic performances. However, nothing quite compares to seeing the original artist of the song perform it live.

This was followed by ‘I’m Still Waiting’ – the song that defined the three years of waiting for this concert (which was postponed twice, each time by a year). This mellow moment was ended abruptly with the unbeatable ‘Upside Down’ – which was actually Ross’ biggest UK chart hit (#2) since the #1 ‘I’m Still Waiting’ (ironically) 9 years prior.

Ross then lost the vivacious but restrictive shawl – for she needed the freedom for the medley that followed. The medley was made up of dance hits ‘Love Hangover’, ‘Take Me Higher’ and ‘Ease on Down the Road’ – the latter being her duet with Michael Jackson from the film adaptation of The Wiz. It was a great idea putting these songs in a medley, what with ‘Love Hangover’ brilliantly transitioning from ballad to disco – and following this with two dance tracks.

In the next set, Ross calmed down a little. She sang ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ and ‘If We Hold on Together’ – the latter of which really spoke to our mindset during the pandemic. Her dress was simpler too. I mean, it was still fabulous, but not quite as extravagant as her first two.  It was a polka-dot, light green ball gown with sleeves that hung below her shoulders.

Following this, she performed a remix of her relatively new single, ‘If the World Just Danced’ – t0 the delight of fans who are familiar with her new music. It’s a great song, but I would have preferred it if she sang the titular song of the album, ‘Thank You’ – after all, it is the Thank You Tour. She sang ‘Thank You’ last at the gig in Leeds the following night, as part of a two-song encore with ‘It’s My Turn’ (an audience request).

The penultimate song of this act was the beautiful ‘Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)’, which transitioned into ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – her second single and first US #1. A radical revision of the original song, one of many tremendous duets by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Ross’ version is known for its splendid spoken word passages and gorgeous gospel influence.

The last act of the main set consisted of Ross’ fabulous cover of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. Her cover, with the music video featuring RuPaul and other drag queens, made Gaynor’s original look butch in comparison – and this live performance brought the fabulosity. For this song, she wore a glittery black dress with tiny sleeves and detachable feathered sleeves – which glittered too! She completely embodied the disco diva! She sang a tiny reprise of ‘I Will Survive’ in the closing moments of the show, after a two-song encore.

The encore was very casual. Ross walked onstage in a sparkly, relaxed, black blazer and pants. She calmly sat on a chair placed in the centre of the stage. She told us that she would be taking a couple of requests. The first request was ‘The Boss.’ When I tell you I exclaimed “Yes!”, I mean it. I do not shout at concerts, ever, but I was gutted that she had cut my favourite songs of hers from the setlist after the first day. “I didn’t know you wanted it,” she said, bewildered that we would want to see the woman we call The Boss sing the song behind that honorific title.

It would have been great if we she sang ‘It’s My House’ – another single from that album (The Boss), which she sings at some dates – but I was just thrilled she sang ‘The Boss’!

The next request was ‘Home’ – a waste of a request, if you ask me. A lovely, little-known song from The Wiz, which she did not even release as a single (Stephanie Mills, who played the role of Dorothy in the stage musical, released it as a single years after the movie was released). It was a little anticlimactic to end the night on a song that most people do not even know, let alone associate with Ross.

The woman has countless hits – you could have asked for ‘Endless Love’ (her most-streamed song on Spotify), ‘My Old Piano’, ‘Muscles’, ‘Touch Me in the Morning’, ‘When You Tell Me That You Love Me’, ‘You Are Everything’, or the song that she often ends her concerts with, ‘Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)’ – but no. Ironically poetic, I guess, for we all headed home after this song…

It might have been a good idea for Ross to put it to the entire audience – take a few requests from the people at the front, shout them out, and see which one gets the loudest applause. There is not a chance in hell that ‘Home’ would have been chosen.

In spite of that, this is, without a doubt, one of the best concerts I have ever been to. It might not have been a mighty production, à la Cher and Queen + Adam Lambert, but Ross puts on a helluva show. The concert is a complete package – with Ross supported by stunning backing singers and a beautiful band – worthy of the woman that defined a generation of music and who is the blueprint of so many female artists who followed.

Diana Ross’ Thank You Tour has now left the UK, but Ross is playing two festivals in continental Europe – Starlight Festival (Spain) and North Sea Jazz Festival (the Netherlands) – and then returning to her home country of the United States for the last few dates of the tour.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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