Monday, December 22, 2008

Music Review of Labelle: Lady of the Power Voice Reunited With Her Sisters

December 22, 2008

Music Review: Lady of the Power Voice Reunited With Her Sisters

New York Times

An usher at the Apollo Theater greeted arrivals on Saturday night with “Welcome back!” It was the second attempt, this time triumphant, at a complete opening concert for the reunion tour of Labelle, the vocal group whose three members — Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx (Labelle’s main songwriter) and Sarah Dash — sang together from 1961 to 1976, evolving from a girl group into a funk act. In October, Labelle released its first studio album since disbanding, “Back to Now” (Verve Forecast).

According to a band statement, on Friday night the winter storm caused a power surge in the Harlem electric grid that disabled the sound system. When it could not be repaired during an hourlong intermission, Labelle returned like troupers, singing two songs unamplified with a gospel choir, raising their voices to fill the theater, before asking the audience to return for the full show on Saturday. Con Edison trucks were still outside the Apollo during the concert. With a smile, Ms. Hendryx declared, “There is no lack of power when you have a voice like Patti LaBelle.”

Ms. LaBelle is the volatile center of Labelle: a full-fledged diva with an aerobatic voice and a candid stage presence. In the songs, Ms. Dash and Ms. Hendryx are the loyal ladies in waiting to her empress and the gospel choir to her soloist, harmonizing steadily while Ms. LaBelle lets loose her many voices. She can be husky and stratospheric, kittenish and cutting, staccato and smooth, tearful and righteous, swooping between registers while saving a few climactic high notes. Ms. Dash and Ms. Hendryx sang strong leads in their old showcase, “(Can I Speak to You Before You Go to) Hollywood,” but they happily ceded center stage to Ms. LaBelle.

Between songs Ms. Labelle gave the trio’s ages — Ms. LaBelle and Ms. Hendryx are 64, Ms. Dash is 63 — and announced she was having a “blood-sugar moment” from her diabetes. She primped in a hand mirror and handed a false eyelash to an overjoyed fan. Ms. LaBelle went through three pairs of shoes: six-inch silver pumps, loafers when she found those too precarious, and glittering Christian Louboutin diamond heels when the loafers weren’t flashy enough. Inviting some men onstage to dance during “Lady Marmalade,” she warned that she had a knife, and if they misbehaved, “I’m going to cut you.”

In its heyday, Labelle was fabulously outlandish, performing in shiny costumes out of “Flash Gordon.” The group still dresses to impress. Since the women had shown their feathered outfits on Friday, Ms. Hendryx had a new sleek leather-and-glitter ensemble, and there was another round of formal dresses for Ms. Dash and Ms. LaBelle. A costume change put Ms. Hendryx in skintight leather and a horned headdress like a glitter Valkyrie. Bringing their costume designer, Sylvia Grieser, onstage, Ms. LaBelle said, “Call her if you want some drag made.”

Labelle sang, as groups did in the utopian years of 1970s funk, about both lusty desires and a social conscience. The group could easily move from “Lady Marmalade,” about a streetwalker, to the smoldering desire of “You Turn Me On” to worrying about the homeless in “Are You Lonely.” Songs from the new album cover the same spectrum, with hymnlike devotion in “Without You in My Life” and political frustration and funk in “System.”

Each song was its own drama, building slowly or charging into a groove, well-plotted with an improvisatory flourish. The three women were clearly exulting in their partnership and having fun. In the full-tilt finale, “What Can I Do for You,” with gospel singers bolstering the song’s calls for power, peace and love, Ms. Hendryx climbed high on the drum kit, turned her back to the audience and shook her leather-clad hips, dancing to memories and to renewal.

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