Lionel Richie at the O2 Arena
The O2 Arena is packed to capacity on Sunday night as we wait for Lionel Richie to appear for the London leg of his Tuskegee tour. Cheers break out as the lights dim and projections play across a stage set with a six-piece band playing a remix of a popular Richie song. Lionel himself is nowhere to be seen, and we quickly realise the song playing is Is It Me You’re Looking For?
The crowd doesn’t have to look for too long – Richie soon rises through the stage on a platform that deposits him, god-like, on a balcony above the band. That cheeky entrance sets the tone for the entire concert: cheesy, dorky, American, and amazing.
The first thing that strikes as Richie’s projected face crosses the screens either side of the stage is how well he’s aged. With his slim-legged silhouette and contagious enthusiasm, he could almost have been plucked straight from the eighties and dropped into the arena. If he’s slowed down at all, it doesn’t show: he hunches and struts across the stage all night, using every inch of available space like he owns it. His voice, too, is rich and commanding. There’s a certain stereotype regarding older musicians, but it suits Richie about as well as carpet slippers suit a velociraptor.
Before long, he’s addressing the crowd with typical verve and charisma. With an all-American gift for hyperbole, he cries, “It’s unbelievable how time flies and here we are celebrating life. We are outta control tonight.” He promises: “The Best. Night. Ever.” along with some good news (“I’ll be singing all the songs I can remember”) and some bad news (“But I haven’t been remembering so many of them lately…”). He’ll need each and every one of us, he claims, to join in everywhere we can. The crowd oblige in spades as he launches into perennial favourite Easy.
Whatever you think about Richie’s music, he has an incredible gift for capturing a crowd’s attention and holding it. He struts from corner to corner of the stage, smiling like a benevolent god as he bestows the glow of his attention from one side of the arena to the other. After Ballerina Girl, he stops again to make another sweeping announcement: “I’m here to proclaim that we have known each other a very long time.” (A quick glance around the arena confirms this to be true; most of the people here are fans from way back.) “I want to thank you for making me a part of your lives,” he says with firm sincerity, and launches into a bracket of more intimate songs using just voice and piano. These give way to the controlled pandemonium of some livelier numbers like On My Way and Dancing On The Ceiling, which the crowd are more than happy to help with.
The heavily-synthesised and almost-too-perfect instrumentals have us thinking at first that there’s a backing track playing underneath the band, but after close scrutiny we realise it’s just an especially fantastic band. There are two keyboards, two guitars, a drummer (on an enormous kit), and a saxophone player. The saxophonist and the lead guitar cover nearly as much of the stage as Richie himself, belting out exuberant solos, dancing, and running from side to side with the singer. Their manic energy has echoes of the seminal Talking Heads’ Live in Rome concert – and it’s electrifying to watch. Richie, dripping with perspiration, keeps up his demands for crowd participation (“I’m the only one sweating while you’re all sitting down having fun!”), but no one seems too upset at being made to dance.
Richie also has a few surprises up his sleeve: the golden-haired and suitably angelic Pixie Lott sparkles onstage for the duet Angel, and soon after Richie introduces Rebecca Ferguson for a magnificent joint rendition of My Endless Love. A few more energetic numbers ensue and Richie takes the opportunity to remind us how happy we all are (“The world is falling apart and we are as happy as we can possibly be, here in this room”) before finishing – appropriately enough – with All Night Long. And, of course, an encore – It’s Not Easy To Say Goodbye. People may criticise Richie for following the same formulas he used twenty years ago, but he sure does it well.
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