Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shirley Reeves Puts on Dynamic Show

Reeves performing in Saugus, MA. Photo by Phil Hopkins
"I sing oldies because that's all I know," Shirley Alston Reeves said from the Kowloon stage last night. "People ask me if I know anything up to date, and I proudly say 'no.'"

Reeves, founder of the  Shirelles, the groundbreaking girl group that scored 11 top 40 hits in the early 1960s, does something far more important than updating her sound. Instead, as she demonstrated in Saugus on Sept. 27, she revels in her own era. Halfway into the show you realized Reeves' set list was a sort of American songbook. Not the usual songbook associated with Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, but the songbook of Kennedy-era American radio. Along with stirring renditions of her own hits, she marched out the best of Chuck Berry, Sam Cook, Frankie Lymon,   Fats Domino, and dozens of other golden age rock & roll acts. At times it appeared Reeves planned to sing every song written between 1957 and 1963.

Reeves also included songs by other girl groups (ie. 'Chapel of Love' by The Dixie Cups; Da Doo Ron Ron by The Crystals). A surprising showstopper was Reeves' version of The Spinners' 1972 hit, 'I'll Be Around," hinting that Reeves could easily do a 1970s soul revue if she desired.

But it wasn't just the breadth of Reeves' song selection that was startling. Her voice was in top form, and her band pounded along like a freight train behind her. ("They're playing too fast," Reeves muttered after a supercharged version of 'Everybody Loves a Lover.' "No more hot mustard for them!") Reeves was also accompanied by two backing singers (including former member of The Orlons, Madeline Morris) who provided not only sharp harmonies but occasional comedy.

Still, if there was one thing to take away from the evening it was the undeniable strength of the old tunes.  We were reminded time and again of the strong melodies and poetic lyrics that dominated the airwaves in Reeves' day. Each song felt like a mini-opera about teen love, yet, lost nothing when interpreted by a singer who just celebrated her 72nd birthday. The Shirelles' hits, in particular, have sometimes been written off as simple tunes for teen girls, but last night these old numbers sounded strangely powerful and expansive, beautiful odes to the outsized emotions that all teens experience, until the audience was enveloped by a warm blanket of pure American pop.

Naturally,  The Shirelles were well represented in Reeves' set. 'Soldier Boy,' 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow,'  'Foolish Little Girl,' 'Mama Said,' and 'Tonight's the Night' still sounded fresh. 'Dedicated to the One I Love' wasn't included, possibly because the original singer on that beautiful cut, Doris Coley, passed away in 2000. 

Reeves occasionally played the role of master of ceremonies, scoping the room for retirement parties and newlyweds,  inviting audience members to get up and dance. A few Scorpion Bowls into the evening, and Kowloon was transformed into something resembling an out of control wedding party.

Unfortunately, just as the momentum was growing, just as the burly old-timers in the crowd were tapping into some long forgotten muscle memory to do The Twist and The Slop, just as Reeves seemed about to embrace the entire audience in a big ol' hug, the lights came up. Kowloon owner Andy Wong decided the time was right, even though Reeves still had a few rounds left in the chamber. Who knows what else this seasoned professional had up her sleeve.  A tribute to Dusty Springfield? A Tina Turner medley?

But not even the abrupt ending could dispel the magic of the music. The show, smartly co-ordinated so one classic song flowed seamlessly into the next,  reminded us of why The Beatles started out imitating black girl groups, and that the music of the 1960s couldn't have existed without the sturdy foundation of the 1950s to lean on.

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