Dionne Warwick review – old-school legacy show soars and bores

Royal Albert Hall, London
Powering through a medley of potent soul hits and glossy MOR tracks, her voice remains full of sweetness and power – when it’s given the chance

Dionne Warwick has a warning for her audience. “I hope you came prepared for what Dionne has prepared,” she offers, before singing a note. “You’re going to be sitting there a long time.”

She’s right: at 78, her live show lasts nearly two hours, without an interval. Initially, at least, you’re gripped by the fear that however long it is, it might be entirely taken up with her opening monologue, which goes on and on like the Yangtze, while a pianist plays gentle chords beneath it. Eventually, however, the chords coalesce into an introductory song that appears to have been specially written for her, thanking her fans for buying her records and gently alluding to the turbulence of her more recent past: after years of financial mismanagement, she was declared bankrupt in 2013. Still, the song avers, things are back on an even keel: “Life’s not all Chantilly lace and satin,” she sings, “but, because of you, I’ve got friends at Chase Manhattan”.

‘A resolutely old-fashioned show’ ... Dionne Warwick.
‘A resolutely old-fashioned show’ ... Dionne Warwick. Photograph: Gus Stewart/Redferns

She then launches into a lengthy medley of her biggest hits, from her 1962 debut Don’t Make Me Over to 1982’s Barry Gibb-penned comeback Heartbreaker. It’s a neat way of reminding the world that she invariably got first dibs on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s best material, even if another artist had a bigger hit covering it – something that rankled with her at the time: “If I’d sneezed on my next record, then Cilla Black would have sneezed on hers too,” she famously protested. Nevertheless, you do start to panic slightly at the sheer speed with which classic tracks are dispatched – as if she’s taken Walk On By not so much as a title, more an instruction – and wonder if it might not be better if a song as exquisite as This Girl’s in Love With You be allowed a little room to breathe. Occasionally she does just that, and the effect is startling, her vocals taking flight. There are moments when you would swear her voice has been robbed of its sweetness and power by the passage of time, but then she throws back her head, opens her mouth and an extraordinary sound comes out: I Say a Little Prayer sounds fantastic rendered as a duet with her son, David Elliot; Do You Know The Way to San Jose soars over a bossa nova rhythm.

The medley approach is part and parcel of a resolutely old-fashioned show. Starlights twinkle beneath a gauzy curtain at the rear of the stage, the star is in a floor-length gown and the backing musicians wear black tie. The between-song patter invariably begins with the words “you know” : “You know, when you’re a performer … ”, “you know, Bacharach and David … ” Band introductions last for about 18 months, and involve a precis of where every musician was born, has lived and is thinking about retiring to.

In a way, that’s perfectly fitting. Even in her 60s heyday, Warwick was an artist slightly out of time. Something of the pre-rock’n’roll era clung to her lovely sound: you would never have confused her records with anything emanating from swinging London or the urgent pulse of Motown. The British Invasion that killed a lot of American pop artists’ careers affected her not one jot. She just seemed to float serenely above it all in a musical bubble of her own: too smooth, slick and effortless to be soul music – gospel-trained, she nevertheless sang like someone who’d never broken a sweat in her life – but too potent and emotionally impactful to be dismissed as easy listening.

That came later, as the second part of the show proves: with Bacharach and David replaced in the driving seat by Barry Manilow, her 1979 single I’ll Never Love This Way Again was glossy MOR, albeit beautifully written. She ends the show singing What the World Needs Now alongside her granddaughter, performs her multiplatinum Aids fundraiser That’s What Friends Are For and walks coolly offstage to a standing ovation, still floating serenely above it all 60 years later.

• At St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 19 September; Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 20 September; SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, 22 September and Sage Gateshead, 24 September.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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