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16th September 2022

Live review: Giants of Soul at Bridgewater Hall

The Mancunion reviews Giants of Soul, with sets from Tunde Baiyewu, Deniece Williams, Gwen Dickey, Alexander O’Neal, Jaki Graham, Janet Kay and Candace Woodson
Live review: Giants of Soul at Bridgewater Hall
Tunde Baiyewu, Deniece Williams, Gwen Dickey and Alexander O’Neal.Photo: Jay Darcy @ The Mancunion

Giants of Soul is a huge UK tour with a legendary line-up of soul sensations, and last month the show came to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall. What was supposed to be a thrilling Thursday evening was affected by the sad news of The Queen’s passing – announced an hour before the concert was set to start.

Fortunately, the concert went ahead as planned, and the performers refused to let the death define the evening. Instead, they turned the night into a tribute to Her Majesty – a celebration of her life.

The night began with Angie Greaves of Smooth Radio welcoming us to the show. We took a minute’s silence for The Queen, gave her a round of applause, and the band played ‘God Save the King’. It might have been better to refer to the song as ‘God Save The Queen’, given the night was dedicated to her memory, but you know what they say – “The Queen is dead, long live the King!”. I am by no means a Royalist, and I have my issue with both the monarchy and the royal family, but, it was a touching tribute to the nation’s long-serving Head of State, who was loved by so many.

Whilst the constant mentions to Her Majesty might have been seen by some as overkill, there were seven performers and a host, and most of them understandably wanted to address the sad news. Besides, I’m sure people would rather have constant reminders of the news than for the performance to have been cancelled!

Photo: Candace Woodson @ Jay Darcy

The first performer of the night was the little-known (in fact, criminally underrated) Candace Woodson, an American singer whose opening song ‘Midas Touch (Ooh Ohh)’ reached number one on the UK Soul Chart last year. Her set then continued with ‘Trying to Be Perfect’ and a cover of Phyllis Harman‘s ‘You Know How to Love Me’. She told us she played Harman in a production in the States, and that the late singer’s family gifted her with Harman’s coat, for they thought she embodied her perfectly.

Greaves then returned to the stage, as she did before and after each act. It was well-organised but there was a relaxed atmosphere. Greaves was the perfect host; she did her job whilst having fun and never taking herself too seriously.

Photo: Janet Kay @ Jay Darcy

The next performer was Janet Kay, “the Queen of Lovers’ Rock”. She began by singing her debut single, a cover of Minnie Riperton‘s ‘Loving You’, before singing her signature song, ‘Silly Games’, which reached number two on the UK charts and was also covered by Lindy Layton (featuring Janet Kay), reaching number 22. This was Kay’s only chart hit but the audience were thrilled to see her. She was a little under the weather but she gave it her all. I was surprised that she only sang two songs, though she might have cut her set short because she was unwell.

Photo: Alexander O’Neal @ Jay Darcy

The third and final performer of the first act was Alexander O’Neal – and he was clearly the performer than many in the audience had been waiting for. It was sad to see him looking old, but age will never define this man; he put his all into it, and the audience loved it. He first sang ‘Fake’ – which reached number 25 on the US charts and thus is his biggest hit over there (he was much bigger over here than his native USA).

He then sang his little-known song ‘Sunshine’ before covering Louis Armstrong‘s ‘What A Wonderful World’. I would have preferred he sang ‘Saturday Love’ (the Cherelle song he featured on), but singing a duet as a solo performer is always tricky. This was followed by his second single ‘If You Were Here Tonight’, which took some of the older audience members right back to their youth. He, of course, ended the set with ‘Criticize’ – his signature song.

My friend, Leah, was unfamiliar with O’Neal’s music but commented on how interesting it was to see the other (older) audience members in their element. That really is one of the joys of watching shows targeted towards older generations – seeing their spirits come alive as the nostalgia kicks in.

Photo: Jaki Graham @ Jay Darcy

After the interval, Greaves introduced Jaki Graham, who began her sizeable set with ‘Step Right Up’ – her sixth, and final, top 20 hit. She then sang ‘Round and Around’ (her second consecutive hit and first solo hit). Her third song was ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love’ – her duet with David Grant, MBE, that gave her her first hit. Having reached number five, it remains her biggest hit.

After this, as she prepared for her penultimate song, ‘Set Me Free’, and she told us that she does not have the best eye sight. “I can see your faces, two rows, but the rest of you, I can feel you,” she said eloquently and passionately.

Her final performance was her cover of Chaka Khan‘s ‘Ain’t Nobody’, which was a top 50 UK hit. It was quite funny when the audience was about to start singing the chorus early (people often forget there are two verses before the first chorus), and she told us to “wait”, before singing the line, “I been waiting for you”.

Noticeably absent from her fun and fabulous set were her other two top 20 hits: ‘Mated’ (her other duet with David Grant) and ‘Breaking Away’. It would have been nice to hear them, but each artist had a limited amount of time, and ending her set with ‘Ain’t Nobody’ was a wise decision – that song always gets people on their feet.

The next two artists were the two I had been most excited to see. If you scroll down my page, you’ll see that I love my divas – especially African-American divas!

Photo: Gwen Dickey @ Jay Darcy

First up was Gwen Dickey, the voice of Rose Royce. Dickey, who was paralysed after a nasty fall over a decade ago, was wheeled onstage – but not without bantering with the guy who wheeled her on. She might have lost the use of her legs, but she has not lost her sense of humour.

Still as beautiful as ever, with a radiant smile, it was amazing to see Dickey giving it one last hurrah (this is her farewell tour). Dickey’s voice has aged even better than her face; she sounds older, sure, but there’s a certain richness that compliments her songs – and an element of experience that was not present on the original recordings.

Dickey sang four of Rose Royce’s biggest hits: ‘Is It Love You’re After’, ‘Wishing On A Star’, ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, and, of course, ‘Car Wash’. The latter had the audience cheering and dancing. These were definitely the right songs to sing, but some fans might have missed ‘I Wanna Get Next to You’, ‘Do Your Dance (Part 1)’, and ‘It Makes You Feel Like Dancing’. I, for one, wish she’d sang ‘Ooh Boy’ – which was not a hit for Rose Royce or Real McCoy, yet remains recognisable, possibly because it was sampled by Shaggy in ‘Luv Me, Luv Me’ (featuring Janet Jackson or Samantha Cole).

Photo: Deniece Williams @ Jay Darcy

The penultimate performer was Deniece Williams. I could not believe how good she looked. I had to check to make sure she was as old as I had thought she was, and, sure enough, she’s in her 70s! She has not aged like fine wine – rather, she has not aged at all.

Williams opened her set with the little-known ‘Cause You Love Me Baby’ – a real shame, for she might have sang the top 10 UK hit ‘That’s What Friends Are For’, or even one of her more moderate hits. ‘Cause You Love Me Baby’ didn’t even chart, so it just seemed a bit of a waste, but maybe the song is special to her. Williams followed the slightly disappointing opening with her breakthrough single (and only UK number 1), ‘Free’.

Before singing her signature hit,  ‘Let’s Hear It for the Boy’ (for the Footloose movie soundtrack), she was repeatedly interrupted by an obnoxious audience member. I go to a lot of concerts, and middle-aged audiences are often the worst; some of them get wasted, shout out, and ruin what should be a classy evening of music and vibes. Anyway, this woman, sat up top, kept shouting out, and nobody could understand what she was saying. Williams was incredibly patient before she finally reprimanded the woman: “Honey, the people came to hear me,” she said, a zinger that had the entire audience erupting into cheer.

Finally, she was able to sing her career-defining song – her second and final US number one – which was up there with ‘Criticize’ and ‘Car Wash’ as the night’s most memorable songs; the ones which got the audience the most excited.

Photo: Tunde Baiyewu @ Jay Darcy

The final performance came from Tunde Baiyewu – the voice of Lighthouse Family. He began his set with the band’s first single (and first hit), ‘Lifted’ – their joint-highest charting single (along with ‘High’). He dedicated the song to the late Queen, for it is the band’s most spiritual song.

This was followed by ‘(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be) Free’. The song was released as ‘(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be) Free/One’. The song has quite an interesting origin, in that it is a combined cover of Nina Simone‘s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free’ (itself originally recorded by Billy Taylor as ‘I Wish I Knew’) and U2‘s ‘One’.

He then brought Williams back out and admitted to having always loved her. He said when she sang ‘Free’, he used to imagine her singing to him. Therefore, dueting with her was a dream come true. First, the pair covered Bill Withers‘ ‘Lean on Me’, before covering Williams’ own ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late’ (her most notable duet with Johnny Mathis). This made up for Williams only singing two hits in her short set.

Baiyewu then returned to Lighthouse Family songs, first singing their most successful single, ‘High’, followed by the iconic ‘Ocean Drive’. Greaves then returned to the stage and demanded he sing another song. He ended his set with a cover of Barry White‘s ‘I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More Babe’.

Greaves then introduced the event’s organiser, before calling over the two backing singers and Candace Woodson. The group then danced to Cameo‘s ‘Candy’, to the amusement of some audience members, whilst others walked out. It was a fun, chill end to a sensational series of performances.

Concert tours with multiple artists don’t always work. They’re sometimes messy, by virtue of a lack of organisation (though one can appreciate it’s difficult to organise so many people). Other times, they feel constructed and overproduced (probably a result of the creatives going overboard to make things run as planned). But this event had it just right: it ran smoothly – smooth like soul.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

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

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