Great songs endure, and so does great talent. Both were on display Saturday night at the Music Hall, where a near-capacity crowd enjoyed more than 2 1/2 hours of Gladys Knight and the O’Jays.
Knight opened the co-headlining show and made it clear from the start that she is no heritage act who is hanging on well beyond her best years. She turned 71 in May, but Knight still sings with considerable power, agility and soul.
Backed by a five-piece band and four stellar singers, the three-time Grammy Award winner took her audience on a voyage through a catalog that includes 13 top 20 hits. The first Grammy was a funked-up gospel version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which reached No. 2 for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1967. She followed that with “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong,” then “If I Were Your Woman,” performed as a duet with one of her background singers.
By then, Knight and her small orchestra had established what would be the greatest virtue of this show: its confluence of eminent songwriting and impeccable performances, both vocally and instrumentally,
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She prefaced “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” with a short homily about love and the need for communication, the in-person kind: “Don’t be sending me no texts,” she said, “no LOL. I can’t hear you laugh.” She estimated that she had sung “Best Thing” 2,000 times, but she delivered it like it was the first or could be the last: sincerely and lathered in soul.
Before “Baby Hold on to Me,” Eddie Levert of the O’Jays joined Knight onstage, where they paid tribute to the memories of her son James Newman, who died in 1999, and his son Gerald Levert, who died in 2006. After a sultry version of another classic, “Neither One of Us,” she brought out her brother Merald “Bubba” Knight, who lit up the place with a party-time cover of the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit, “Uptown Funk.” He also gave the Royals a shout-out, which drew a loud ovation.
Knight closed her 90-minute set with one of the best soul songs ever, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” delivering it the way it was recorded, and then some gospel music, including a soul-stirring version of “Let the Church Say Amen” that had much of the crowd on its feet, swaying, clapping and singing along.
I don’t know why anyone would sign up to follow Knight and her band, but the O’Jays did. And they were up to the task.
Now a trio that comprises co-founders Levert and Walter Williams plus Eric Grant, a member for 20 years, the O’Jays brought an 11-piece ensemble that aroused plenty of energy and groove: a five-piece band, two backup vocalists and a four-man horn section.
They opened with “Give the People What They Want,” a 40-year-old track from their “Survival” album. And then they did just that: The O’Jays have six top 10 hits, and they sang five of them. The first of those was the sweet pop-soul ditty “I Love Music.” The second was the funk-soul classic “Back Stabbers,” which sounded as urgent as it did 43 years ago.
The three engaged in some choreography that was surprisingly slick, if not complicated. Levert, 73, joked about his age a couple of times, confessing that he’s usually more in the mood for sleep than sex, but he, Williams and Grant all sang and danced with finesse throughout the one-hour set. Levert also sang a few bars of “Kansas City,” hometown of his wife: “They got some crazy lil’ women and I got me one.”
They addressed the terrorists’ attacks in Paris implicitly before singing a few verses of “People Get Ready,” then delivered three of their best-known and -loved hits: the irrepressibly joyous “Love Train”; “Use to Be My Girl, another pop-soul classic; and then the jazzy funk-soul groove-fest “For the Love of Money.” Like nearly every song that preceded it, “Money” is decades old, sprung from a vastly different era, yet it endures, just like those who performed it.
Gladys Knight: All I Do/I Want You; Love Overboard; I Heard It Through the Grapevine; I Don’t Want to Do Wrong; When I Was Your Man/If I Were Your Woman; The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me; Stay With Me; Baby Hold on to Me; I’ve Got to Use My Imagination; Neither One of Us; Uptown Funk; Midnight Train to Georgia; For the Love of God/Let the Church Say Amen.
The O’Jays: Give the People What They Want; I Love Music; Back Stabbers; Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby; Livin’ for the Weekend; Lovin’ You; Let Me Make Love to You; Cry Together; Stairway to Heaven; People Get Ready; Love Train; Use to Be My Girl; For the Love of Money.