Smokey Robinson: SXSW's best all-around entertainer?
Image Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images Walking across town to Smokey Robinson’s concert at Austin Music Hall last night, I was anticipating something like chapter two of the SXSW keynote interview he’d given the morning before. Another opportunity to stand in a room with the man who penned some of Motown’s — all popular music’s — most enduring hits. A second chance to pay my respects to a 70-year-old veteran. The kind of show where you clap thoughtfully after each song, not holler in ecstatic appreciation. My mistake. I hadn’t even realized I’d been underestimating Robinson, but man, last night is the last time I’ll ever do that. What he gave us on that stage was a master class in no-gimmicks entertainment that would put artists a third his age to shame.
Robinson took the stage at 10 P.M. sharp. Backed by a nine-piece band wearing white suits to his stylish all-black outfit, plus two female dancers in revealing attire, he opened with “Going to a Go-Go.” It was immediately clear that he was in fine vocal shape, but his vibe was still slightly stiff compared to what was to come. As his band kicked into the opening chords of “I Second That Emotion,” though, a change began to come over both Smokey and the crowd. You could see him feeding off the energy of the hundreds of people singing along to every word.
The transformation was complete by the night’s fifth song, “Ooo Baby Baby.” Twenty minutes into the set, this was where Robinson’s vocal performance went from “good for a 70-year-old” to “let me put down my notebook so I can applaud harder.” Hearing that incomparably expressive falsetto soar to its full heights was close to a religious experience. The crowd responded with the night’s biggest cheers yet. “Well, I guess that’s it,” Smokey joked. “We should have played that one first!” A backup singer stepped forward to help him off with his coat. He began grooving in a sensual shimmy that he kept up for the rest of the night, with several spry variations including the classic Temptations bow-and-hand-roll. (The man’s still got moves!)
As Robinson got more comfortable, he began telling Motown stories — about the Temptations before singing a few of the tunes he wrote for them, about young Stevie Wonder (“He should have a -ful on his name: Stevie Wonderful”), and more. He’s got a great sense of humor and lots of memories to share, as his keynote demonstrated on Thursday. He could probably fill an entire show with pure patter. But he couldn’t keep from singing for long. For the next hour, his voice never faltered, ranging in tones from ebullient (“My Girl”) to sensitive (“Don’t Know Why”) to downright majestic (“The Tracks of My Tears”). His delivery of the latter song’s climactic quatrain — “Just a clown/Ooh yeah, since you put me down/My smile is my make-up/I wear since my break-up with yoooooou” — was the single most moving moment I’ve seen all week in Austin. Check out Robinson’s full set list below.
Smokey Robinson set list:
“Going to a Go-Go”
“I Second That Emotion”
“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
“Ooo Baby Baby”
“The Way You Do the Things You Do”
“The Tears of a Clown”
“Don’t Know Why” (Norah Jones cover)
“Being With You”
“Just to See Her”
“The Tracks of My Tears”
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