Lionel Richie is real, there's no question. His star was born decades ago and solidified through so many hits that I had even forgotten some of them were his (and the Commodores', of course.) It was refreshing to see someone so real perform; the last time I was at Red Rocks, it was for Lana Del Rey. While there is no comparison to the two performers, really, I felt at ease watching Richie; I wasn't trying to figure out if he was singing to backing tracks. I wasn't waiting for him to speak, to gauge his humanness by his interaction with the crowd. I wasn't worrying that I might be missing some clue the Internet had already pointed out that proved he wasn't a phenomenal singer. Because Lionel Richie is fucking incredible. It was clear that Richie and his team understand the now-customary rules of a big show: the audience was bombarded with clip-arty graphics and photo montages that ran across giant LED screens, and there were plenty of strobes. But it seemed so pointless: The audience was just staring at Richie the whole time. He's one of those ageless humans, someone I had to google to figure out how old he was because he looked and sounded so good.
Richie bounced out on stage just before 9 p.m., looking dapper in all black -- he would change quickly several times throughout the night, switching from one tailored suit jacket to the next. But even his wardrobe transformations were meant to be fast and minor; it was as if he wanted to spend every moment he could with his crowd. He cracked the set open with "All Around the World," and the Richie dance party took off. The singer took many moments between songs to pause and stand in what felt like genuine awe of the size of the venue. As he stared up into the night, Richie explained that he wasn't used to looking up so high at all of the faces watching him. He played another solo hit, "Penny Lover," and then proclaimed, "Tonight we are going to cover everything, all songs" and started in on "Easy," which would be one of many Commodores tracks with which he would regale his attentive audience.
Richie told us the show was being taped for a Fourth of July special, so we were instructed to celebrate as if it was the holiday. But it didn't feel forced -- it just felt like an inside joke with the performer. Richie had his crowd rapt; it was obvious by the smiles that everyone in the outside room felt special. Throughout the evening, a piano moved in and out of the spotlight, giving the singer time to sit down and create some intimacy within the massive space. He ran through hits like "You Are the Sun, You Are the Rain," "Truly" and "Ballerina Girl" as the audience of couples held each other. The show was like a giant date night.
The hits kept coming, from Richie's solo stuff to more Commodores favorites and tracks like "Endless Love," his duet with Diana Ross. "Stuck on You," "Dancing on the Ceiling," "Three Times a Lady," "Say You Say Me" and a beautiful medley of "Brick House" and the Ohio Players' "Fire" lit up the big screens with flickering imagery while Richie smiled big.
Saving the best for last, Richie closed with "All Night Long," a grand gesture for a crowd he had found an immediate connection with. The stage wasn't vacant for long, though, and Richie returned for an encore, this time dressed in a beautiful white overcoat. He said many thanks to Michael Jackson and pointed up at the sky before leading the crowd in "We Are the World," with lyrics scrolling above him so no one missed a line.
There are many perfect nights at Red Rocks; it's part of the natural charm of the venue. But for a performer to bring thousands of people down to his level and create an experience that feels personal is a skill, and Richie owns it. It is early in the season to call it, but Lionel Richie just might have been the best show at Red Rocks in 2014.
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