Dressed in a stunning fitted strapless velvet bustier top and black floor-length silk dress, Mills was warm, energetic, sassy and generous, offering her backup singers — J.Paul, Ralph Harmon and Jeremy Keith — a chance to shine on individual songs and promoting their work.
“When I tell you they can sho’nuff sing, they’ll make you holla,” Mills said in introducing the men.
And singing they did, covering Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” and “Teddy Pendergrass’ “Close the Door” while Mills went backstage for a costume change.
In fact being able to “sho’nuff sing” was the central theme of the evening at Stockbridge Amphitheater. Unlike artists who have lost a vocal step or two because of age or who never had it all (it’s incredible how many new acts lip sync these days), Mills and opening act Jeffrey Osborne didn’t employ the oft-used trick of having the audience or background singers sing vocally challenging parts.
For instance, if you had closed your eyes, you would have thought you were listening to Osborne during his chart-topping heyday. His performances of “Don’t You Get So Mad,” “Stay With Me Tonight” and the sumptuous classic “Love Ballad” from his time with R&B group L.T.D. were full-throated and booming. And his handling of “We’re Going All the Way” and “On the Wings of Love” were remarkable.
To demonstrate his agility, the 75-year-old Osborne began his set singing while simultaneously bouncing through the crowd. He did it again while performing George Duke’s “Reach For It.” Once he returned to the stage, he said he needed water, but not because he’s in his 70s. The audience roared with approval.
This is not to say that Osborne didn’t give the audience a chance to show how well they could croon with him. On “Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song),” several concertgoers were given the microphone to repeat the song’s hook, “Can you woo woo woo?” The results were mixed, including one concertgoer whose attempt was so bad that Osborne directed his team to pass the mic to another audience member so that part of his show didn’t end on a sour note.
Osborne ended his set with fan favorite “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again.” By then he had ditched his white blazer to reveal a trim figure in black shirt and pants, perfect to allow him to effortlessly slide across the stage with the tune’s insistent beats.
When Mills took the stage, the bar was high — both because of Osborne’s performance and because of expectations that she would be magical.
She met the bar and obliterated it. When she sang “Two Hearts,” her collaboration with the late Pendergrass, she was playful and coy with Keith, the background singer who sang Pendergrass’ iconic vocals. On “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,” her vocals were clear and powerful, hitting several high notes as well as she did when the song was released in mid 1980s. On “Feel the Fire,” the Peabo Bryson tune she and Pendergrass covered as a duet was just as powerful as a solo tune by her.
The highlight of the night, of course, was Mills’ performance of “Home,” her signature tune from “The Wiz.” It’s the kind of showstopper that elicits tears as much for its message of hope and family love as it does for how Mills handles the buildup to its fiery conclusion.
Like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Jennifer Holliday’s/Jennifer Hudson’s “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” and Barbra Streisand’s “A Piece of Sky,” the song grows increasingly dramatic as it progresses, all crashing cymbals and crescendos, until you’re on your feet clapping and wiping away tears.
“I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love like yours, like mine,” she sings as the song pushes to its big moment. “Like home.”
And as photos of late legends in music, film and sports flashed on a screen behind her — including Michael Jackson, Natalie Cole, Kobe Bryant, Cicely Tyson, Vandross and Houston — she growled passionately, “When I think of home, I can hear my friends telling me. ... Stephanie please sing our song.”