“Y’all gonna make me hurt myself this evening, I can tell,” drawled Atlanta, Georgia’s self-styled “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight, sometime Motown recording artist and erstwhile leader of the Pips. She was an ebullient host, a happy and likeable character dressed in a sheer black trouser suit whose only hints of divaism appeared choreographed.
Gladys Knight | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh | Rating ***
Midway through the show she appeared to call out her musical director, ensconced in a nest of keyboards off to the wing, for starting a song without her; the scolding she gave him was fiercely delivered, but with hindsight it was surely a skit designed to make sure everyone in the room knew who was boss.
At the age of 72, Knight played up to the parts of grand dame and matriarch well. Her entrance was across a red carpet flanked by elaborate candelabra, her five-piece band and quartet of backing singers were all much younger than her, and she gleefully referred to the latter group as her “children” when they took over lead vocals for a spirited tribute medley of Prince’s hits. Yet Knight is in possession of no small number of classics herself, and her voice is still strong and clear, easily outshining all the others on stage in its dexterity.
She strode through breezy disco-funk in Nitty Gritty and Love Overboard, indulged in a little power-balladeering with her Bond theme License to Kill and Streisand’s The Way We Were, and showed a keen eye for the contemporary by covering Sam Smith’s Stay With Me and Adele’s Hello (the latter forming at two-part musical “letter” with Lionel Richie’s song of the same name). When a passage of gospel gave way to Midnight Train to Georgia, her 1973 hit sat comfortably alongside such classics.