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Music Review

Nostalgia stars at Summer show

By Joan Anderman
Globe Correspondent / July 15, 1999
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Those pounding drums. That throbbing bass. That . . . synthesizer. The good-natured flashback that was the Donna Summer concert reminded one that a lot of things besides pop music styles have changed since the '70s -- among them the bedtimes and hairlines of Donna Summer fans. But time seemed to stand still last night, certainly for a radiant Summer, whose face and voice have hardly changed in 20 years. And time did a rapid rewind for the sold-out crowd, who blissfully boogied the night -- well, a civilized 90 minutes of it -- away in the twinkling glow of four swirling disco balls.

The concert got off to an inauspicious start when, only moments into the opening, a billowing white stage curtain fell to the ground, revealing a startled but gracious Summer alone at a microphone -- clearly not intending to be seen just yet. But she shrugged and threw her arms open to the cheers and claps of an adoring audience -- a surprising number of whom represented a new, young generation of fan.

A good two-thirds of Summer's set was devoted to old hits -- a wise move, even though Summer and her husband Bruce Sudano, who also sang background vocals, are a prolific Nashville songwriting team. (Their teenage daughters, Amanda and Brooklyn, supplied dance moves.) Against all odds, there were eye-opening moments amid the familiar rush of nostalgia. ``I Feel Love,'' for instance, an ethereal mantra of a disco track, revealed itself to be a precursor to modern ambient dance music. On the flip side, was there ever a more horrific song -- drenched in swooning chords and swelling synths and frighteningly stern melodies -- than ``MacArthur Park''?

Highs and lows notwithstanding, the evening was all about fun. Three giggling girls were invited up from the audience to sing backup on ``On The Radio,'' and -- with the support of Summer's energetic seven-piece band -- they transformed into a veritable Supremes. ``Enough Is Enough,'' ``Bad Girls,'' ``Hot Stuff,'' ``She Works Hard For The Money,'' -- all inspired a mass, celebratory dance party of the sort one rarely sees at a concert anymore, or anywhere else for that matter. No matter that these songs really aren't, well, very good. Disco was more about raising your arms and shaking your butt than ingenious chord changes or probing lyrics.

For all her eagerness to look back (looking back, after all, has become an lucrative art form unto itself), Summer has moved on. She did a soaring country turn on ``Different Road,'' a new tune written by her husband. And four songs from her autobiographical musical-in-progress, ``Ordinary Girl,'' were first-rate slices of theatrical pop -- most notably ``You Gotta Be Rich,'' a lively, tongue-in-cheek show tune about moving to Los Angeles, and ``If There's Music,'' a sturdy, poignant ballad that describes leaving her first marriage to pursue music.

Four bars of the steamy ``Love To Love You Baby,'' a song Summer famously refuses to sing in concert on moral grounds, seemed an odd bone to toss. That sort of tease seemed entirely counter to her very discomfort with the song. But Summer redeemed herself on ``Last Dance,'' the night's most irresistable whirl of pulsing beats and booming melody -- custom-made to close a show.

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