Disco diva Donna Summer hasn’t heard the news, apparently. The album is dead, the song is king – or in her case, queen.
Performing the eighth show of her U.S. tour, Summer devoted more than half the night to selections from her first CD of new material in 17 years. She’d warned in a recent interview that she planned to use her big hits, like “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance,” as chips sprinkled in a freshly baked cookie of new music.
It’s a safe wager that the mostly-female crowd would have gladly skipped the carbs and gone for the whole chocolate bar. If that was the case, they weren’t letting on, and to Summer’s credit, she knew when to deliver the sweet stuff.
Dressed in a sparking blue ballroom gown and arm-length matching gloves, she began the show with “The Queen Is Back” from the new album, and quickly segued into “I Feel Love,” followed by an energetic “Dim All the Lights.”
“I’m A Fire,” another selection from “Crayons,” featured a thumping bass line that recalled Summer’s disco days, and was the first new selection to get the crowd standing.
The tepid “Sand At My Feet” soon had them sitting again.
She brought a five-piece band, with two backup singers and three dancers (who wore themselves out with costumer changes). She used several electronic panels spread across the stage to good effect, providing moment-to-moment visual cues with every song. “On the Radio” evoked nostalgia for a bygone age with graphics of radio dials, morphing into pulsing disco lights.
Just before intermission, Summer played two of the best tracks from “Crayons” – the bouncy samba “Brazil” and the title song – the latter, a ska-infused romp. The first set closed with “Mr. Music,” which included a wistful montage of Summer’s record covers over the years.
“Enough is Enough (No More Tears),” her empowering 1979 duet with Barbra Streisand, kicked off the concert’s second half, and like a lot of the evening’s selections, the beat was noticeably (and unnecessarily) faster than the original. She followed that with another hit – one of the oddest disco cover songs of all time – “MacArthur Park,” which showed off Summer’s operatic singing range to great effect, and was one of the evening’s highlights.
The middle of set two slumped a bit. Summer seemed to have difficulty with her self-described “diva moment.” Her attempts to explain a ‘was this all worth it?’ epiphany were drowned out with “you go, girl” cheers, shouts and song requests. She did another new tune, “Be Myself Again,” touted as new album’s centerpiece, but it’s more than a long shot that anyone will ever hear it again after this concert (unless they buy “Crayons” – another dodgy bet).
Likewise, “Slide Over Backwards,” featuring the fictional Hattie Mae, proprietor of a mock New Orleans bar, fell flat when Summer left the stage for a costume change and let one of her backup singers solo for a song.
She recovered from this small disaster with a one-two-three punch of “She Works Hard For the Money,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” – the last given a modern sheen with Randy Mitchell’s screaming lead guitar work.
She encored with a not-so-subtle bow to David Bowie (‘Fame (The Game)”), augmented with a photo montage of Billie Holliday, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, along with head shots from Hollywood’s golden age.
“Last Dance” was, appropriately enough, Summer’s final bow of the night, and provided the first glimpse of that ubiquitous Seventies icon, the disco ball. Tellingly, the mirrored ball fragmented into several pieces behind Summer as she wrapped things up, gave a half-hearted wave and shuffled off the stage.
She’d played most of her familiar songs (“Love to Love You Baby,” “Sunset People” and “The Wanderer” were among the missing), but in the end it still felt frustrating. The sad fact is today’s fans attend one or two shows a year; they expect the hits, not a musical sales pitch.
For its part, the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion is the concert venue equivalent of a scrappy Indie rock band, working harder and delivering better than the competition. They sell their own tickets with reasonable service charges, don’t charge for parking, have a friendly, engaging staff, and a wide array of affordable food and beverage choices.
The acoustics are excellent for an outdoor facility and they even make a top-shelf margarita that puts a few Mexican restaurants to shame.