What Retirement?…Songstress Anita Baker Proves She Still Has The Pipes!

(June 10, 2018). On a misty, chilly spring evening in the north suburbs of Chicago this past Sunday, thousands of folks gathered for what felt like a huge family reunion to see The Songstress, Anita Baker, the 1980s and early ‘90s R&B and crossover pop radio staple who wowed fans at Ravinia Park with hit after hit from her considerable song repertoire.

Anita Baker performs at the Ravinia pavilion on June 10, 2018 (north Chicago suburb).

In just over two hours of pure musicianship, Baker, who turned 60 in January and who announced her pending retirement from live performing soon afterwards (this tour will be her last), gave Chicagoans – and a few seriously devoted fans traveling from other parts of the country – a taste of what made her one of the most respected, premier vocalists of the late 20th century.

From her grand entrance, marked by a surprisingly sassy – and somewhat sexy – cover of LaBelle’s classic “Lady Marmalade,” to the pleasantly surprising song choice for her final encore performance, Ms. Baker proved she hasn’t lost her flair for entertaining the masses, and she was especially generous on Sunday.  She wrapped her famous contralto (and sometimes soprano) singing voice – which is still fully intact, thank you – around fifteen songs, many of them considered R&B classics, while skillfully and wonderfully performing each in its original key.

That’s an amazing feat for any vocalist four decades into his or her career, but it’s especially noteworthy for veteran female singers whose lower registers tend to be exercised more as their voices age.

And what the jubilant, adoring crowd gave Ms. Baker with their undying energy, she returned in spades with her trademark blend of vintage jazz, soul and pop vocal stylings, a mix that has sparked many a standing ovation for Baker over the years (with Sunday night being no exception).

And not only did Ms. Baker sing each song in its original key, but she infused many of them with newly improvised vocal arrangements – including her famous scatting and a well-placed shout here or there. This had the dual effect of bringing the songs renewed life while showing off her more than three-octave vocal range in ways that even the original recordings hadn’t done, in some cases.

After revving up the audience and giving Patti LaBelle a run for her money on “Marmalade,” Ms. Baker followed with another cover tune, the Rod Temperton penned “Mystery,” which was originally done by the jazz-fusion group Manhattan Transfer and included on Baker’s breakthrough album, Rapture.  But it was the third selection that would receive the loudest reaction up to that point.

The crowd roared its approval as the band played the opening bars to “Sweet Love,” her first top-ten pop hit and the song that catapulted Rapture to its multi-platinum status in 1986-87.  Armed with her famous, expressive hand-waving gestures, Baker commanded the performance as if she were executive-producing an album (she has experience in that area, too, mind you).

But the show wasn’t without its minor technical glitches, and Ms. Baker displayed extreme patience with certain crewmen as she sought to perfect the musical experience both for herself and for her fans.

As only a tactician and known perfectionist like Baker could do, she admonished the sound technicians located behind the stage curtains when they couldn’t get the music mix just right.  “I have no level,” she repeatedly sang as the band played on. “I need the crossover…all I hear is my vocal, there’s no keyboard playing from this monitor,” she pleaded while gesturing towards stage right.

Anita Baker points to a speaker while instructing sound techs backstage on June 10, 2018.

Except Ms. Baker wasn’t just saying those words, she was singing them…in step with the band as they continued playing “Sweet Love” behind her.  At some points it was hard to tell whether she was giving the techs instructions or adding new lyrics to the classic tune.  Only Anita Baker could make scolding her technicians sound so sweet.

The sound problems resurfaced during the next song, “Been So Long,” prompting the techs to receive another lecture before Baker had the band restart the song from the beginning.  Although this might have been considered an annoying tactic when done by other artists, Ms. Baker’s attempts to get it right were met with the forgiving audience’s applause when she signaled that the techs had finally perfected it – or at least got the sound to the singer’s liking.

So Ms. Baker was at times technical and commanding, at other times affable and interactive, but always engaging while showing off her considerable musical talent and knowledge.

For instance, in addition to the instructions she’d earlier given the sound mixers, she praised the audience when they got the “modulation” correct after taking over singing duties on “No One In The World.”

On that same tune, after segueing into an ad-lib snippet of Rufus & Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody,” Ms. Baker acknowledged how much she loved Chaka and the beauty of being backed by a live band where musicians play real instruments without having to worry about backing tracks.  Without naming names, it wasn’t clear whether Ms. Baker, known to be a diva at times, was still taking digs at some of the artists with whom she shared chart space back in the day, or many of today’s acts who rely even more on such tactics.

Whatever her motives, Ms. Baker made it clear her fans were there to get the real thing…and that we did.

Among the show’s highlights was an improvised tune Ms. Baker seemingly made up on the fly and which she dedicated to the many fans who’d braved the rainstorm to come see her.  She repeatedly showed appreciation for the hundreds who were camped out on the Pavilion’s vast lawn area, a scene with so many picnic settings complete with chairs, tents, blankets, hot food and libations, it made the event seem more like a family reunion than a concert.

She also fulfilled a fan request from the front row by singing her first solo single, “Angel,” a top-5 R&B song that was likely already on the set list, but one the fan had to take pride in suggesting to her just moments before she and the band launched into it.  “Angel” was as early in her catalogue as Baker would dig – an unfortunate circumstance for those who’d hoped she would reach even further back to her Chapter 8 days of the late 1970s.

Later, in a pictorial tribute to several artists who’d recently passed away, Ms. Baker sang “Just Because” as images of George Duke, Natalie Cole, Maurice White, David Bowie, George Michael and Prince were shown on the venue’s screens.

The late Natalie Cole was one of six deceased artists whose images were projected as Baker paid tribute in a video montage.

On “Giving You The Best That I Got,” her biggest chart hit, Baker and her band played an extended, slowed-down version of the tune (also my personal favorite).  On the ensuing encore, and one of many fan favorites, “Fairy Tales,” Baker was joined on stage by a special audience member, the Grammy-winning, jazz-R&B pianist and producer Robert Glasper, who in an impromptu performance replaced Baker’s own pianist as the song concluded.

Ms. Baker, who had promised a second song during her setup of the encore, delivered with “Priceless,” the opening track from her third album, Giving You The Best That I Got.  As it was another personal fave, “Priceless” was a surprising but nice conclusion to a great performance by the still sometimes underrated soul music legend.

And “Priceless” just about summed up the evening as well as Baker’s incredible career, which she claims will end after this tour.

If that is indeed the case, the thousands of Chicagoans who attended this show showed their appreciation with multiple standing O’s and a sendoff that Ms. Baker will likely not forget anytime soon.

Congratulations on a great show and an even greater career, Ms. Anita Baker…a true Songstress indeed.

DJRob

Anita Baker set list at Ravinia on June 10, 2018:

  1. Lady Marmalade (LaBelle cover)
  2. Mystery (Manhattan Transfer song)
  3. Sweet Love
  4. Been So Long
  5. Caught Up In The Rapture
  6. No One In The World
  7. Whatever It Takes
  8. Same Ole Love (365 Days a Year)
  9. Improvised tune (tribute to fans)
  10. Just Because
  11. Angel
  12. To The Letter
  13. Giving You The Best That I Got
  14. (Encore) Fairy Tales
  15. Priceless

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