BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Lionel Richie aptly summed up the dichotomy between himself and touring mate Mariah Carey.
“She’s campy. I’m fun,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview last week.
The gregarious Richie and divine diva Carey proved that statement correct with their two very different sets at Infinite Energy Arena Sunday night, each stocked with hits (though both – especially Richie – possess a canon that could fill a full night of music) and each delivered with their signature style.
Carey, who took the stage earlier in the show, is a singer, not a performer, and she seemed content to stay fairly stationary. She complained about a rough piece of stage flooring a few songs into her set, and said, with a touch of Carey-ness, “I’m just going to avoid this area,” before performing “Touch My Body,” filled with a finger-snapping groove and prominent keyboard plinks.
“I love you so much,” she cooed to her fans, taking some signs that read, “Lambs for Life.”
Standing in front her five-piece band and a giant video screen flanked by curtains, Carey showed that even though she’s often criticized for her live vocals – and living up to her 1991-era self is just an unfair expectation – she can still hit the occasional glass-shattering note, as she did at the end of a “Love Hangover” and “Heartbreaker” pairing and that impressive, if modified, run that closes “Vision of Love.”
She sprinkled her 12-song set with a snippet of “I Know What You Want,” a comeback hit in 2003 featuring Busta Rhymes (present on video) and “My All,” a booming ballad from her 1997 “Butterfly” album.
As might be expected from a woman who loves to showcase the visual, Carey changed outfits several times, going short and sassy with her opening sparkler and long and fringe-y for set closer “Hero,” which sounded less confident than some of her other vocal performances. (Carey did not allow professional photographers to shoot her set.)
But Carey’s fans are some of the fiercest among pop stars and even a couple of flat notes wouldn’t deter their adoration of their queen.
When Richie, 68, arrived about 40 minutes later, he did so with arms outstretched and grin plastered across his face as he greeted fans on all sides of the stage.
Although a combo of “Easy” and “My Love” might seem like a mild opening salvo, Richie’s energy – and the sassy guitar licks from Ben Mauro and sax solo by Dino Soldo - catapulted the songs off of the stage.
“It’s good to be home, y’all,” Richie said (presumably meaning the South, since he hails from Alabama and lives in Los Angeles).
He’s the world’s best musical party host and proved to the nearly sold-out crowd that no matter your age, sex or race, if you can’t find something endearing about a Richie or Commodores song, you might as well be devoid of a pulse.
As white spotlights searched the stage and bassist Ethan Farmer thumped out the tense groove of “Running with the Night,” Richie absorbed the funk in his wiggling shoulders. During the equally exhilarating “Dancing on the Ceiling,” which featured swirling colored lights that brought you right back to that roller rink in 1986, Richie pranced across the stage and flapped his arms, no lingering after-effects apparent from the knee issue that sidelined this tour earlier in the year.
“I haven’t seen dancing like that since 1976, y’all,” he joked.
Richie is a charming storyteller and delivered his jokes with standup-worthy timing. Even some of the stories he’s told before (about being back in the South, getting off the plane “and the brother said, ‘Welcome home, Ly-NEL,”) still warranted a chuckle thanks to his technique.
He also made even the simplest song – “Stuck on You,” anyone? – sound like the most emotional poem this side of Lord Byron.
While a 90-minute set barely nicks the edge of Richie’s catalog, he stuffed an admirable number of solo hits and Commodores staples into his show – going sweet and slow for “Three Times a Lady” and “Sail On” and donning black tails to crank up the funk on a smoking double punch of “Brick House” and “Fire.”
He returned to the piano for the forever-ingrained-in-pop-culture “Hello,” on which the audience heartily sang along and continued for “Say You, Say Me.”
One of Richie’s most endearing qualities as a performer is his ability to make the audience feel special. Several times during his set, he tucked his microphone under his arm and clapped for the crowd. He also called out random members for commentary (he told a cute pair of 10-year-olds, insinuating his next generation of fans, “I’ll see you when I’m 92!”) and conjured a few self-deprecating quips.
His timeless songs aside, Richie is a true pro.