The Queen is dead. Long may the Empress of Soul reign.
Part sermonizing preacher, part chatty neighbor and all sanctified soul singer, Gladys Knight tore it up Thursday at the Ordway in St. Paul. She sang with all the soul-stirring fervor she exhibited at the recent funeral for the Queen of Soul, her friend Aretha Franklin.
It’s too bad that the 63-minute, no-encore concert seemed about as brief as her two selections at Aretha’s service. Still, no one could complain about what Knight delivered.
Her performance was filled with passion, purpose and personality. The 74-year-old Rock Hall of Famer talked a lot about faith, love and the power of positivity. She also discussed her career, giving context and perspective to certain songs.
Knight mentioned advice Ella Fitzgerald gave her and then offered an Ella-inspired “Someone to Watch O’er Me.”
Knight, the pride of Atlanta, reminisced about how Motown was one big happy family when she and the Pips recorded in Detroit. After expressing her dislike for gossip (she was raised in church) and love of Marvin Gaye, she ripped into “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with a funky Ray Charles groove that made it more exciting than either hers or Gaye’s subsequent recording. Yes, fact: Knight and the Pips recorded “Grapevine” first.
Even though she’s probably shared her stories too many times to count, Knight delivers them as if you’re a long-lost relative who has got to hear the latest. Like the one when she was watching the movie “Forrest Gump” and “discovered I was in the movie.” Well, it was her song “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” which she then offered with a deeper voice, giving it an earthier soulfulness.
Knight wasn’t all about oldies. She gushed of her admiration for Sam, that would be Smith, not Cooke, and served a taste of his 2014 Grammy-winning smash “Stay With Me.” If that was a plea, a cover of Lee Ann Womack’s 2000 hit “I Hope You Dance,” which Knight recorded for a Tyler Perry movie, was a majestic wishing someone well.
Showing she can be right up to date, Knight cleverly wed Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man,” rendered by her backup singer Javonte, with her own “If I Were Your Woman,” filled with fiery exhortation, bringing an old school he said/she said to this new/old mashup.
Knight’s contralto never reached the stratosphere of Aretha or Patti LaBelle. But she brought a churchy power to her testifying. Her wail liberated you as effectively as her whisper soothed you.
The high point was not the expected “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which was fueled by Knight’s gritty growls. No, it was “The Way We Were,” that double dollop of schmaltz that she transformed into a lollapalooza of affirmation. I’ve heard Aretha Franklin sing it live. I’ve heard Barbra Streisand sing it live. When I heard the Empress of Soul sing it live, I knew it had been sang.