This show lasted nearly two hours and it was delivered in two parts, and both were steeped in the past.
Huey Lewis is a pop star who has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. His most popular was “Sports,” which has topped the 7 million mark in the U.S. alone. It’s one of those heyday albums that birthed five top 20 singles. Its successor, “Fore!” fared well, too: four more top 20 songs.
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Lewis brought his eight-piece band, the News, plus two backup singers to Starlight Theatre on Thursday night. It’s safe to say that most of the nearly 5,000 fans who showed up were in the mood for all of those hits. And with more than enough gusto – considering how many times they have served them over 25 years – he would oblige them. But not without a big side dish of something new – that was retro. Lewis is touring on his ninth studio album, “Soulsville,” a tribute to the enduring sounds of Stax Records and some of its legendary performers, like the late Solomon Burke, who was remembered after Lewis sang Burke’s “Got To Get You Off My Mind” early in the set.
No one’s going to confuse Lewis’ voice with Burke’s, even on a great day, but this song, as much as any from the “Soulsville” album, typified this album and the live versions of its tracks. The performances were bright and tight – the News is a fine-tuned rock/pop-soul orchestra – but no one is going to confuse any of these songs with a Stax/Volt number, either.
After lighting the evening bonfire with “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Lewis and the band jumped into “Soulsville” for nearly an hour..
Lewis is a polished showman with plenty of charm and one-liners in his banter, and he kept the mood aloft all night. The new material inspired some dancing in the aisles and walkways, but it eventually became evident the crowd was itching for something more familiar. After he and four of his News mates delivered a pleasant a cappella version of “60 Minute Man,” he indulged them, big time.
When the band struck the first chords to “Heart and Soul,” several fans who were headed toward the concessions (or bathrooms) spun and headed back towards their seats. Others came running back from wherever they’d been. It was payoff time. He would spend the last hour or so on the music that made him rich and famous: “Power of Love,” “Hip to Be Square,” “Walking on a Thin Line” (which sounded surprisingly fresh), “Do You Believe in Love.”
Whereas the “Soulsville” songs rendered homogenized, grit-free sketches of another era, Lewis’ own songs conjured something deeper and longer-lasting. Sure, nostalgia was thick in the air, but those songs also recalled an era of their own, one of the last eras in which top 40 albums were stocked with more than one hit – as many as five or six, sometimes - and the music was performed by bands stocked with studied and trained musicians.
He ended with his fifth encore, a wild, fiery rendition of “Workin’ for a Living,” which he dedicated to the working-class grunts in the crowd. It’s a rocking blues anthem, laced with some killer blues harp, and a song that resonates deeper now than it did during the days of Reaganomics. It might have been the most timeless song he played all night.
Hearts of Darkness: Kansas City’s own Afro-beat/funk/soul/hip-hop orchestra opened the show with a 45-minute set that drew a couple or few thousand fans into the theater, where most remained. Though only 12 of the 18 or 19 members were on stage, the band delivered its typical brassy, funky, groovy punch and had no trouble sounding large in a large venue. Lots of people were impressed. Nice job.