Motown came to Soulsville on Saturday night as the Detroit label’s iconic diva, Diana Ross, kicked off the 10th season of the “Live At the Garden” concert series. More than 6,000 filled the Memphis Botanic Garden to hear Ross deliver a brisk and boogie-inspiring survey of her remarkable career, from her days as lead singer of the best-selling girl group The Supremes through her ’70s and ’80s solo career.
Ross’ current tour is dubbed the “More Today Than Yesterday Tour” a reference to the spiral-staircase number that she performed early in her 90-minute set after making a dramatic entrance from a riser to the tune of her disco hit “The Boss.” But as those two songs might suggest, this night was absolutely more yesterday than today.
Much of the first half of the show was taken up by a rundown of hits by The Supremes, the most successful vocal group of all time, which Ross fronted from 1961 to 1970. Ross delivered satisfyingly faithful versions of eight of the group’s hits, including “Reflections” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” But on the last of The Supremes numbers, the chart-topping domestic drama “Love Child,” she let her wonderful 18-piece band — complete with horn and string sections and a full accompaniment of backup singers — really break loose, turning the song into an extended salsa breakdown.
Though the 66-year-old struggled at times vocally — the high notes on “My World Is Empty Without You” were a particularly rough patch — this stretch of the show showcased Ross' enduring strength as a performer. Unlike today’s melisma-crazed “American Idol” aspirants, Ross is a classic singer, focused not on showing her range and control but on serving the songs, something she did exquisitely this night. Of course, it helps that she has some of American pop’s best material from which to choose.
Ross easily could have filled the entire show with numbers made famous by The Supremes. (What? No “Where Did Our Love Go?” No “I Hear A Symphony?”) But that would have left out many great fan favorites.
Ross kicked off the portion of the show focusing on her solo career with the infectious floor-filler (or, in this case, lawn-filler) “I’m Coming Out.” Other highlights included “Upside Down” and "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” She also cast a spotlight on her brief-but-noteworthy film career with selections from "The Wiz" (“Ease On Down the Road”), "Mahogany" (“Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”), and the Billie Holiday biopic" Lady Sings the Blues" (“Fine and Mellow” and “Don’t Explain,” which, with their softer, lighter, jazzier tones, were somewhat lost in the night ether).
Ross ended the show on several inspirational notes, closing the main body of the show with her rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” before coming back for a encore that included the anthem “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “I Love You (That's All That Really Matters),” which, like the tour itself, was dedicated to her late friend and Motown labelmate Michael Jackson.
Throughout the evening Ross was gracious and engaged, showing no signs of the diva behavior that has dominated her portrayal in the press in recent years. Her eagerness to entertain showed in the production, from the extravagantly large band to the glittery and glowing light and video effects. And at the center of it all was Ross — commanding the stage, pulling off quick costume changes, and keeping the show’s breakneck pace on time — setting a pace that would have left even her younger, modern-day successors like Beyoncé winded.