Lionel Richie – Live in Prague, 09 March 2007

by Sam Beckwith

Originally posted on Stumpy Moose:

What is happening here? Something’s going on that’s not quite clear.

Am I really on my way to a Lionel Richie concert?

For a musician who’s sold tens of millions of records, it’s hard to find anyone who describes themselves as a Richie fan.

Already a star with the Commodores, Lionel rivalled Michael Jackson and Prince in the ’80s.

His music was everywhere. He had his own Pepsi commercial. He even co-wrote We are the World.

But while Prince remains an icon, and even Jackson still has a following, Lionel has become a sort of joke — a byword for blandness.

I’m only really going to the show because my friend John urged me to get tickets, but now he has flu and can’t make it.

A trained accountant, raver, English teacher, juggler, wine importer, ’80s music fan, and property owner, he’s one of the most entertaining people I know.

The news that he’s not coming has taken some of the wind out of our sails.

John is cool in a way that we, if we’re honest, really aren’t, and his enthusiasm had driven the whole Lionel venture forward.

Without him, I begin to think the night might be a drag.

I’m the first on the scene, and wander the streets round Sazka Arena looking for something to eat.

Three years after it opened, it still looks like an alien spacecraft has made an emergency landing.

Building Sazka Arena was supposed to boost the whole Vysocany district, but to my untrained eye it still looks pretty grotty.

Caroline and Mike arrive, and I decide to get food inside.

I’m polishing off a surprisingly tasty tray of chicken wings and chips when the music begins.

Beer isn’t allowed on the arena floor, so we gulp down plastic glasses of Staropramen before going in.

The first big thrill is knowing that we’re walking over the ice where Slavia Praha were playing Ceske Budejovice last night in the hockey playoffs.

I know from taking the Madison Square Garden tour that ice is almost never relaid during the season. For concerts and other non-sporting events, it’s just covered over with tiles.

The second big thrill is Lionel in the flesh, relayed to the cheap seats by three giant screens.

The largest screen, centre-stage, is framed with a white border, which looks unsettlingly like a window.

At times it seems like Giant Lionel is going to come crashing through the glass and start rampaging around the arena.

After playing a couple of songs we don’t recognize — presumably from the new album — Lionel announces that, because it’s his first visit to Prague, he’ll be playing everything — ’70s stuff, ’80s stuff, Commodores stuff, solo stuff…

From that point on, we’re putty in Lionel’s hit-making hands.

The band is tight, in that anonymous session-musician sort of way, and Richie’s voice is in great shape.

Along with the songs we know, there are tracks we vaguely recognize and others we’d almost forgotten.

Lionel sings the happy songs with a smile on his face — a side effect of plastic surgery, perhaps?

On ballads, he looks appropriately sad.

Easy is part of the opening salvo, adorned with a guitar solo that owes more to the Faith (No More) cover than the original.

Three Times a Lady, Stuck on You and Sail On are also dispatched early.

Set against a backdrop of red neon and video of headlights streaking across LA, watching Lionel sing Running With the Night feels like freebasing the ’80s, but even Richie seems a bit embarrassed by Ballerina Girl.

Such is the glut of hits that the audience seems unsure whether to use up their lighter fuel now, or save it for ballads to come.

Facing a Czech audience, Lionel doesn’t shy away from between-song banter.

At one point he complains that we aren’t trying hard enough — he’s doing all the dancing and sweating, and we aren’t holding up our end of the bargain.

That’s not how a Lionel Richie concert works, he explains.

Occasionally, Lionel will point to his watch, let us know that it’s getting late, and ask us if we really want to go on “all night long.”

That one’s clearly being held back for the encore though.

The language barrier becomes a problem only when Richie introduces “surprise guest” Diana Ross, ahead of Endless Love.

Not realizing he’s joking, a large section of the crowd goes wild.

When the truth emerges there’s some booing, but we’re soon all friends again.

Endless Love instead becomes a duet with “all the ladies in the audience,” but it’s still a bit of an anti-climax.

Mid-song, though, Lionel notices a middle-aged Czech man, at the front of the seated section stage-right, dancing and waving excitedly.

Getting a laugh, Lionel introduces the man as his cousin.

The audience is pretty mainstream, as you’d expect, but with an unusually high number of same-sex couples.

Czech lesbians love the Lionel.

The hits keep coming.

Amid all the sound and fury of Dancing on the Ceiling, I actually think I’m in an MTV video.

(The keyboard player obviously feels the same way, slyly throwing in the riff from Van Halen’s Jump at one point.)

There’s also a set dedicated to early Commodores material, back when they were a bona fide funk band.

At that time, says Richie, he was just a backing singer with a big afro, but he manages passable versions of Brick House and other ’70s rump-shakers.

There are two encores, of course.

Thinking the unthinkable, I realize that Say You, Say Me’s actually a pretty good song.

Hello and All Night Long are saved until the very end.

After hyping All Night Long all night long, it’s actually pretty sloppy — the drummer seems to have his own agenda, and spends a fair part of the song drowning out Lionel’s vocals.

By then, though, it hardly matters.

Leaving the arena, we feel bad for John and all that he’s missed.

It’s been the kind of show the Melody Maker always warned you about, shamelessly valuing showmanship over sincerity, but we’ve been thoroughly entertained.

Lionel may have become a joke, but he’s canny enough to play along, talented enough to pull it off, and actually seems like a nice guy.

You knows he’s cheesy, he knows he’s cheesy, and everybody goes home happy.

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