It was six years ago that the Empress of Soul embarked on her ‘Farewell’ tour of the UK, and given the length of time between now and then many of us here had almost given up hope that she would return to these shores. Maybe she truly thought it would have been her last UK tour, but after successful revamping her touring band and releasing two new albums, including the brilliant Another Journey released in 2013, Gladys Knight has made a triumphant return to her British fans. Her current UK tour has so far taken in dates in Glasgow, Manchester, and The Sage in Gateshead, and we were there to witness something special.
British soul star Natasha Watts was tasked to warm up the audience; disappointingly only half of Hall One was full for Watts’ half-hour set, for Watts herself possesses a brilliant voice and a selection of good soul and house songs. Whilst her performance of one her house tunes fell slightly flat, her neo-soul numbers were well received and her new single ‘Let Go’, out 21st July, was delightful. As support acts go, the selection of Natasha Watts is an inspired one.
After a thirty minute interval it was time for the Empress to grace the stage; by this time the hall was full, with The Sage having sold restricted seats late on Friday morning. Then as her five-piece band took to the stage plus her four background singers, including her new protégée Avehre, Gladys Knight appeared to her adoring fans, earning a standing ovation before she had even sung a note. Knight opened up with an intriguing if-slightly-odd combination of Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘I Want You’ and The Jacksons’ ‘Shake Your Body (To The Ground)’. If the song selection was slightly bemusing, her vocals were not: having turned 71 last month Knight’s voice remains delightfully impressive.
Knight’s band were also pretty impressive, working hard to recreate the lush arrangements of the original songs, yet at times, particularly on the more up-tempo numbers, the band seemed to overpower Knight’s lead vocals and the background singers. This was less pronounced as the set progressed, thankfully someone on the mixing deck finally thought to change the mix. However, this meant that overall Knight was most impressive on her stunning selection of ballads. In quick succession the Gateshead crowd were treated to her James Bond theme ‘Licence to Thrill’, and the classic ‘Best Thing To Ever Happen To Me’. On the latter, Knight was simply brilliant, with the band staying true to the original arrangement, giving space for Knight to demonstrate that vocally, she still has it.
Taking things more up-tempo, Knight launched into one of our particular favourites, the brilliant ‘Baby Don’t Change Your Mind’, a song that often gets a little neglected compared to other songs in her catalogue. The band and Knight really delivered on this tune, making it one of the highlights of the set. Then, to top it, the band launched into ‘I’ve Got To Use My Imagination’ from the multi-platinum Imagination LP. Again, we weren’t expecting to hear this one but we’re more than glad it was included in the set.
More ballads followed including stunning renditions of ‘Part Time Love’ and ‘They Way We Were’, and before long Knight was telling the audience the story of one of her biggest hits, the classic soul hit ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. Now, of course, the version on most Motown compilations is not the Gladys Knight & The Pips version, it is the Marvin Gaye version. Gaye recorded the song first, but Motown would not release it; Norman Whitfield, the writer and producer, took the song to Gladys and The Pips and it became Motown’s biggest record of the year – until they released Gaye’s version, of course. Knight appears to be over this point in her career, joking that she was happy for Marvin Gaye to achieve the success he did but that “we had words about, though.” In a beautiful homage to the Prince of Motown, Knight began the song along the lines of the Marvin Gaye version before switching to her version on the second verse.
The tributes were not limited to just Marvin Gaye however, this week marks the sixth anniversary of the passing of Michael Jackson, and Knight gave an emotional rendition of The Jackson 5’s ‘I’ll Be There’. Despite what Motown told the world about Diana Ross discovering the group from Indiana, it was actually Knight who found them at a talent competition and brought them to Motown.
Between this, Knight also performed her latest single ‘Soon’, a gospel remake of The Commodores’ classic ballad ‘Zoom’, a remake that works surprisingly well. This was overshadowed however by another Motown classic: her protégée Avehre joined her on a stool at the front of the stage, and sang Bruno Mars’ ‘When I Was Your Man’ impressively, to which Knight responded by launching into the heart-breaking ballad ‘If I Was Your Woman’. Knight was at her most impressive on this song, and was a standout moment in the set.
This was closely rivalled however by the introduction of her brother and ex-Pip Bubba Knight who proceeded to whip the audience into a frenzy with his incredible energy, entering into a cover of the Al Green standard ‘Let’s Stay Together’, and then leading the audience into a frenzied cover of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, complete with a Pips-esque dance routine. The inclusion of Bubba Knight into this tour is a wonderful treat, his energy and passion for the music is still evident, and his introduction provided his sister with a few moments of rest before her finale. The audience response to Bubba Knight was wonderful to say the least, and it begs the question of whether the remaining Pips will ever reunite with Gladys Knight one final time.
Once Bubba Knight bounced merrily off stage, Knight gave the Gateshead audience two more songs: the last single released by her at Motown, and the first single released at Buddah Records. The former, of course, was ‘Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye) and was sung more impressively than on the record; Knight’s voice has aged gracefully, with her slightly lower range fitting the song beautifully. The song was perhaps the most emotional of the night, with several members of the audience, including us, having a tear in the eye. Then Gladys Knight ended with the inevitable, inviting us aboard the midnight train to Georgia. There was no encore, and looking back there was probably no need for one: when you’re last song is ‘Midnight Train To Georgia’, how can you top it?
Throughout the set Knight looked humble and appreciative of the audience and with the response to her music, admitting that “you don’t get to see us as much as you should.” But on this night she made up for it with a spectacular performance, proving that she is undoubtedly one of the all-time great soul singers. Will Gladys Knight return to the UK in future years? After the response and sold-out audiences, possibly (and hopefully) yes. But if the Empress of Soul decides not to return we’ll always have the memory of this very special night.
(Gladys Knight even enjoyed our photo of the night…)