Gladys Knight: Farewell Tour

Gladys Night Farewell Tour Adelaide 2024Frontier Touring. Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre. 21 May 2024


This might be one of those times I despair for the Australian concert scene to ever make a full recovery post-Covid. I think it will, but it is a long haul when Gladys Knight plays her farewell gig to somewhat less than a full house. Gladys Knight is class, all class. She is 80 and she still has the voice; even if she doesn’t have all the moves she’ll give it a try. This was not a pension-me-off tour, not by any means. I’ve seen Brian Wilson when he couldn’t remember his own name, let alone why he was on stage or why the Beach Boys were singing his songs. Gladys Knight was not like this.


But I get ahead of myself. Local singer songwriter Sean Blackwell was the opening act, supported by his brother Drew and singer Kirsten. So that’s two acoustic guitars and three vocals to spread a little magic over Sean’s countrified but not-too-folksy tunes. He starts with Holiday, and this man can sing. The guitars hit a groove and lock into it, and this signals the only real problem. Occasionally brother Drew will provide a layer in the sound with some lovely string finger work, a filigree embellishment, but all too often they hit the spot in 4/4 time; one, two, three and strum down hard on the fourth. Vocally, it’s similar. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus. Blackwell needs an arranger to work over his songs. Set closer Smile is the bees knees.


After a longish pause and some slow handclapping from the crowd Gladys Knight is led onstage. She doesn’t care that she’s 15 minutes past advertised start time and if she does she does not show it. She’s been performing for so long she can work the crowd to her way of thinking inside three minutes and that’s about what it takes before she is milking the rapturous applause.


Gladys Knight & The Pips began performing in the early 1960s, continuing through the 1970s and ‘80s with a number of record companies: firstly, Fury Records, then her career really taking off with Motown (from 1966, with Nitty Gritty, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Neither One Of Us) and then going stellar with Buddah Records (from 1973) then Columbia. Popular opinion has it that Knight came into conflict with Diana Ross, and that her career may have suffered as a result. Nonetheless, she stayed classy, and the move to Buddah brought riches – Midnight Train To Georgia, Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me, I’ve Got To Use My Imagination all being featured numbers in a set which was a pastiche of so many of her hits.


And the voice! At 80 the voice remains good, not strong but strong enough, not perfect but unmistakable; she could pull a note and tease it out, holding it until the crowd acclaimed her skill. It’s a trick she used once, twice, thrice, and only a performer with clarity and such good timbre could expect to get away with. She may be slower, she may have needed a chair after 40 minutes onstage, but this was the real McCoy.


All too soon we got to the downplayed opening chords of …Grapevine, signalling the terminal phase of the concert, but not before we’d had a superb sounding Licence To Kill, from the James Bond movie of the same name, the nine piece band blaring into the riff, guitarist briefly coming to the fore. For me this was a highlight, I am much more a fan of punchy and upbeat soul music than I am of the more assured r ‘n’ b or funk. The latter stages of the set explored more of the beautiful gospel which brought us to these latter interpretations, and for a few minutes it seemed Knight let down her guard, moving away from a tightly scripted performance to briefly interact with her three back vocals in a slow motion call and refrain during a cover of Donnie McClurkin’s Stand. Another highlight for me.


And then the inevitable conclusion: Midnight Train… was always going to gently take us away at the end of the show - as an evocative and quintessential American song which says so much about aspiration and love. Although originally recorded by Cissy Houston, it remains a fitting tribute to a performer of such unique stature such was the gloss she was able to give the number in its recorded version. Classy to the end.


Alex Wheaton


When: 21 Mar

Where: Festival Theatre

Bookings: Closed

Continuing around Australia and New Zealand until 4 Apr: Details