Is there a more exhilarating sound to a concert-goer’s ears than Diana Ross wailing the opening notes to her signature hit “I’m Coming Out” from somewhere far off-stage? The 1980 hit and unofficial gay anthem has been a staple at Ross’s concerts since its debut, most frequently serving as her opener as she races through the audience, futzing with her always-gargantuan wrap, and singing. It’s a gambit that perfectly encapsulates the legendary performer’s appeal—it is both extravagant and intimate, the gesture of a true diva who still wants to be close to her fans.
Ross, who returned to Philadelphia last night after a 10-year absence, has not changed her M.O. The signature horn blasts of “I’m Coming Out” and Ross’s reedy voice shot out across the twilight before she’d set foot on the stage of the Mann Center. As part of the “In The Name of Love Tour,” the 70-minute Wednesday night concert was a reliable trip down memory lane, revisiting a surfeit of the former Supreme’s hits from the ’60s and ’70s. Indeed, the 34-year-old show opener was the most current of Ross’ hits to be performed.
Not that the diverse, older-leaning crowd seemed to mind. They leapt to their feet for “I’m Coming Out,” and then comfortably settled back down for the rest of the show. This was a nostalgia show in many ways, and the vibe was markedly relaxed. While some danced in the aisles or in their seats, most stayed seated, occasionally cheering, clapping or performing girl-group hand choreography. Even the sometimes energetic star had a laconic air about her as she ambled about the stage, fanning herself, like a heiress wandering her mansion, absent-mindedly admiring the wainscoting after a leisurely brunch.
But Diana Ross has never really been in a rush. Since her days with the Supremes, one of her signature moves has been a blithe shrug, as if to say “You can’t hurry love, and you can’t hurry me.” Her perma-petite frame commands attention despite its demure reserve.
She’s an unlikely icon. Her light voice isn’t gospel-trained like contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle; she’s not physically imposing; she doesn’t dance (and please don’t ask). And yet, she is the original diva. Her relationship with Motown founder Berry Gordy and split with the Supremes captured the public imagination enough to produce Dreamgirls. She’s only appeared in three films, but has an Oscar nomination for one (Lady Sings the Blues), single-handedly designed the trend-setting costumes of another (Mahogany), and wore silver heels and flushed a witch down a toilet in the third (The Wiz.) She has dabbled successfully in televison, and even introduced the world to Michael Jackson. Since the ’80s she’s been encased in a cascade of hair, sequined shrouds, and over-sized wraps. Anything today’s modern divas are doing, Diana did it first. With a shrug.
And she’s still got it! The 70-year-old’s voice was as clear and pure as on her recordings, even though she had to battle a muffled sound system at The Mann. In just over an hour, she powered through 20 of her greatest hits and five extravagant costumes without appearing to break a sweat.
Ross opened with a long set of Supremes hits, including “Baby Love” and the crowd-pleasing “Stop! In The Name of Love.” She wore a drapey, glimmering gown that hung off her shoulders and pooled on the floor like she was shedding an iridescent turquoise skin. Which, for all we know, maybe she was. She’s Diana Ross; it could happen.
She left the stage while the band vamped on “Love Child,” and returned with a rousing performance of “The Boss” in a sparkly black gown accompanied by a truly ridiculous/breath-taking neon green fuzzy floor-length mink. (Someone please confirm the whereabouts of Oscar the Grouch; I’m concerned.)
Video from a previous stop on Diana Ross’s “In the Name of Love” tour
Ross’ second set was a bit shorter, skipping from “The Boss” to “Touch Me in the Morning” from her film Mahogany, then her first hit of the ’80s, “Upside Down.” She ended the set with “Ease on Down the Road” from the 1978 classic The Wiz. One wishes she had followed it up with a rendition of “Home” and “Brand New Day” (and really, just the whole soundtrack from The Wiz), but she was quick to ease on off the stage and into another gown.
Outfit No. 3 three, literally, a king-sized periwinkle duvet cover. Literally.
She crooned “Don’t Explain,” and brought the tempo back up with “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” A quick costume change produced a wet metallic smock and skirt number in gold with a trim of peach-colored loofah. It was giving “Divas First Communion Realness,” and the audience loved it. She sang “Do You Know Where Your Going To,” a truly phenomenal “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and closed with “I Will Survive”.
After a quick bow and extended applause break, Diana Ross returned to the stage for an encore verse of “I Will Survive.” Somehow she’d managed to change outfits again, this time—shockingly—into a pair of leggings, a black jacket, flats and sunglasses. One presumes this is a look from the “Diva Is Tired and Tryna Go Home” line. Compared the to over-to-the-top extravagance of her previous ensembles, Ross’ laidback appearance at the end of her remarkable concert was both a surprise and a return to form for the seemingly down-to-Earth diva. As her backup singers did the heavy lifting on the last verse of “I Will Survive,” you could almost hear the legendary Diana Ross saying “Uh, this has been fun but I’m 70 years old and I gotta go. I got Orange Is The New Black paused on my iPad. Me and Chaka Khan text about it. And you know that queen stays giving away spoilers. Look, I’m going to sing you a couple of chords and then bounce. We’ve had a lovely evening and we’ve spent a lovely 50 years together. You’re lucky I didn’t just have my driver roll the limo on stage so I could sing to you out the window. Did that one time in Toledo. Kicked my shoes off and everything. Anyway, thank you Philly. It’s been real.”
Come back soon, Miss Ross!