Not every artist on the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Thursday Night Icons Series quite measures up as icon, but there’s no doubt about the man who kicked it off.
Smokey Robinson, one of the brilliant talents who built Motown, launched the series Thursday in a nearly filled Heinz Hall. At 75, he’s just a bit older than the ’60s rockers (Beatles, Stones, Woodstockers) and still exuding a fun, youthful vibe.
After an orchestral opening with music from “Star Wars” and “Superman,” Mr. Robinson’s nine-piece band assembled along with a pair of female dancers in spandex, an odd sight in front of the PSO. Offsetting everyone else in white, the legend arrived in an emerald sharkskin jacket and started with one of his more contemporary songs, 1981’s smooth R&B hit “Being With You.”
With “I Second That Emotion,” he tapped into Motown greatness and got to work on a set filled with classics he performed with his Miracles or worked up for one of the label’s other sensations.
His voice has always been a soft, silky thing — a quiet storm, if you will. With a band and orchestra behind him, he had a lot to rise above, especially on the groove numbers.
As for the silky part, just one word: wow. Voices don’t get any smoother than his luscious vocal on “Ooo Baby Baby,” one that put goosebumps on every arm and had his fans jumping to their feet. He joked, “Well, I guess that’s it. … I should have played that first.”
“Right now, we are going to boogie,” he said, stripping off his jacket, showing his dance moves and declaring, “I could have been a Temp!”
He proved it with a medley of “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “Get Ready” and “My Girl,” spontaneously engaging “the Heinz Hall choir” — the crowd — to make the room rock. One of the faces in the crowd was Franco Harris, whom he saluted down front.
They took the tempo up a notch with a collision of sound on “Tears of a Clown” and a swinging “Fly Me to the Moon.” The orchestra left — “they had to pee,” he joked — allowing him and his to take it down for the bedroom jazz of “That Place.”
For the finale, he reached back for another piece of Motown gold, “The Tracks of My Tears,” going from spare and pretty to big and brassy, and then eased into the long late ’70s slow jam “Cruisin’,” with fans joining him on stage.
With timeless songs, stunning vocals and playful showmanship, it was a performance worthy of his spectacular legacy and a concert that set the bar high for the “icons” to come: Johnny Mathis (July 16), Diana Krall (July 23) and Randy Newman (July 30).
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576.
Being With You
I Second That Emotion
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me
Ooo Baby Baby
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Tears of a Clown
Fly Me to the Moon
Just to See Her
The Tracks of My Tears