Smokey Robinson’s not-so-quiet storm

by Ryan Snyder

There’s a certain expectation among the great singers and performers that, as they age and their heyday appears further and further in the rearview, diminished skills are natural byproducts of the aging process. The voice weathers from use, movements become a little clunkier and enthusiasm for the music in general erodes. Smokey Robinson, it seems, is not subject to those ravages. The 73-year-old Motown legend’s performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center was, all at once, a gorgeous, thoughtful exhibition of some of the greatest pop ever written, a deeply personal sojourn into the back pages of Motown with one of its most important figures as the guide and a laugh-out-loud spectacle by a man with a preternatural gift for engagement.

Dressed in a shimmering white silk suit for the first half of his two hours, he was the angel on your right shoulder, serenading classic Miracles tunes like “Going to a Go-Go” and “I Second that Emotion” into one ear while gradually divesting himself of unneeded articles of clothing — first his tie, then jacket. It was a prelude to the second half in which he was like the devil on your other, dressed in red leather from head to toe and purring grown-folks jams from his solo eras.

His still-considerable skillset aside, maybe the most appreciable asset that Robinson maintains is that he paces his set so that it’s easy to derive the music he believes to be the most important among his considerable catalog. It was okay that “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the song the Temptations made a hit for him, was only given a concise rendering, or that “My Girl” was abridged into a few bars and an audience sing-along. When he gave Norah Jones’s “Come Away with Me” the nuru treatment or stretched “Cruisin’” out into a 10-minute-long goodnight, turning taciturn grandmothers from the crowd into stalking lionesses by bringing them onstage to help the room perfect the chorus, it was time spent wisely. Likewise with the stories he brings, even if they’re holdovers from other sets. His story about a Motown Christmas party encounter with Stevie Wonder definitely bears repeating.

“’Smoke,’ he said, because that’s what he called me. ‘As the dawn breaks and the moon kisses the dew and as all the people of the world will be free’ — because that’s how he talks — ‘I got some music on this tape and want you to work with me,’” Robinson recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, when is good for you?’ He said, ‘Right now,’ then he offered to drive me home. This is what we came up with,” as “Tears of a Clown” queued up.

One didn’t need an entirely selective ear to discern Robinson’s passion for his more recent work, including his last effort, 2009’s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun. He treated “Love Bath” and “That Place” with tactile aplomb, leaning back into them with his right cheek tilted down for that extra gear that only Smokey Robinson can engage. That didn’t make older favorites like “Just to See Her” or “Tracks of My Tears” and “Cruisin’” any less pleasurable, it was just a reminder that he’s not only among the last of the great song men left standing, but also cavorting, crooning, wooing and swaggering as well.