A knee operation put the kibosh on Lionel Richie's concert with Mariah Carey that had been scheduled in March at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. A day of rain couldn't slow down Richie on Thursday night at Mystic Lake Casino's ad hoc amphitheater in Prior Lake. There was a gorgeous peach sunset as he took the stage and nary a drop of rain. And, no, Mariah wasn't part of this tour.
In his first show since his canceled winter tour, Richie, 68, proved to be an unstoppable, crowd-pleasing entertainer with a can't-miss collection of hits. Too bad his voice is diminished.
Richie had challenges reaching his notes and projecting his sound. He could have used some of Mariah's magnificent lung power. His voice seemed muted, almost too easy, easy like, ah, let's skip the obvious pun.
But the accomplished showman that he is, Richie merely kept turning to the crowd of nearly 5,000 to sing the choruses and the higher parts. And when the songs are a familiar soundtrack to the 1980s, all kinds of middle-aged folks are going to sing along.
Slender, energetic and chatty, Richie had no problem turning on the charm. He picked on women in the front row for their dancing. He summoned a white-haired woman from 40 yards away to the foot of the stage, only to goof on her as recognizing her from a Miss Brick House contest in 1976.
Yes, Richie remembered his days in the Commodores, the Tuskegee Institute-launched R&B band of the mid-1970s. Early in the 85-minute, encore-less set, Richie sat down at a grand piano and eased into "Easy," one of the Commodores' biggest ballads. Near the song's end, he proposed an abrupt change of direction. "I'm going to pretend we're on some island," Richie announced, and then he offered a tasty reggae treatment of the chorus.
Afterward, he offered his own review of the performance: "That was pretty good. It's only the first show. I'll see you 142 shows later."
As he did with "Easy," Richie showed a habit of doing mini-mashups. For instance, the concert opener "Running With the Night," his up-tempo 1983 hit, featured a mid-song snippet of "White Horse," a European hit by Denmark's Laid Back from that same year. During "Brick House," the Commodores funk classic, Richie ventured into the Ohio Players' "Fire," another bass thumper from the same era.
The five-man band was well rehearsed, but the fans didn't know that they'd be given sing-along assignments on so many tunes. When it came time for "Endless Love," Richie's enduring duet with Diana Ross from 1981, he explained: "I didn't bring Miss Ross with me. I called her. ... She couldn't make it. You're going to be Diana and I'm going to be me."
That meant him feeding the lyrics to the fans like a high school choir director teaching a new song. And the female fans, who had been swooning all night long, sang their hearts out for Richie.
Not surprisingly, the superstar invited the fans to handle the all-star chorus on what he considers his most important piece, "We Are the World," which he co-wrote with Michael Jackson. He had the words scroll across a screen like a giant karaoke, which led to an opening-night glitch: "Where saving our own lives" should be "We're saving our own lives." Well, at least his voice was loud and clear on this number, for a change.