Gladys Knight and a few of her musical friends staged a captivating show at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium Sunday night.
The show was a benefit concert, the proceeds going to fund the RHS Community Center, a project that Knight’s husband William McDowell has taken on. The plan is to convert the old Reynolds High School in Canton into a community center. It’s a labor of love for a place McDowell grew up in, and if tonight is any indication of the vibe, it will be a beacon of love when it’s finished. (It’s also a bit of a hometown show for Knight, who has a home in Fairview.)
Waiting for Lyric to kick things off I start chatting with my neighbors at this seated show. Most of the crowd is middle-aged, everyone is in a good mood, and the ladies behind me, it turns out, flew all the way from Vegas to be here.
Then it’s time for the music. Lyric, with a short set allotted them, wastes no time getting the crowd moving. For their second song they launch into an inspired version of Purple Rain that has the entire, sold-out audience completely entranced.
Before their third and final song Leeda (Lyric) Jones explains to the crowd that she got her start as a street performer and thanks Knight for having her on this stage. She plays an original song titled Hard Work and it’s obvious to everyone that she deserves to be here. This is not just a local band opening. It’s a perfect match for the mood, and Lyric is as talented and fun to watch as anyone who will take the stage tonight.
After a very short break Little Big Town comes on to play their rootsy brand of country music. At first I expect to be a little lost, but it’s clear early on that I underestimated the number of their hits. They play song after song after song that clearly everyone in the audience knows and that most are singing along to. They finish their set with Boondocks To the delight of everyone and then make way for the main event.
William McDowell comes out to say a few words and then introduces comedian George Wallace. He riffs on all things Asheville, paying special attention to the absurdity of our airport being tagged “international.” The crowd is loving every word and his combination of being somehow totally aloof and entirely interactive at the same time makes for an interesting ride.
Then it’s time. Knight’s backup singers introduce her with the song A Night to Remember. She follows it up with what is clearly becoming the message of the evening, I Love You. Only two songs in and the crowd is already hanging on Knight’s every word.
She’s animated and energetic, wearing maroon jeans with a gorgeous, see through shirt/skirt. Her voice is as strong, soulful, and sultry as ever.
The security guards tasked with keeping the aisles clear have their work cut out for them. Everyone wants to dance and take photos. Everyone is out of their seats.
As she moves through the set, Knight sings with and features different artists. Every collaboration is stellar. At the end of the collaboration with Little Big Town, the harmonies are so good that she can’t contain herself any longer and begins jumping up and down like a child, perfectly emulating how each person in this room feels.
“Love is so good,” she tells us. “You just gotta believe in it.” Those words said, she leads the crowd in her classic, Keep on Keeping on. Every person within sight distance of me is singing along, transfixed by her beauty and power.
Then it’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine and Midnight Train to Georgia. The security guards have pretty much given up at this point. There’s no way you can restrain this crowd. They want to be as close as they can to this living legend, everyone crowding in for one chance to touch the hem of her garment.
Then it’s time for more collaboration. From the back emerges Dionne Warwick. It feels like the crowd is about to explode and, after some banter between these two beautiful divas, they launch into That’s What Friends are For.
I have been to more than 300 concerts this calendar year and, standing in a room full of people I don’t know and never will, it hits me that this is the best one yet.
After a funky and rousing Don’t Believe Me Just Watch, they head into the slow down, the build up for the beautiful end of this beautiful evening. I think back to the words William McDowell had spoken earlier about his desire to turn his old school back into a place of love and education.
“My father always told me that if you are going to leave something behind leave big footprints so others can follow.”
There could not be any more appropriate words for this evening. I think back to Lyric, the opener, and can see the congruence. Gladys Knight is not gone yet, but her footprints are unmistakable and, if performers like Leeda (Lyric) Jones are any indication, the torch she is passing on is in good hands.
Caleb Calhoun is a music writer for Ashvegas.com and GratefulWeb.com. He lives in Asheville with his mutt and best friend, Dr. Gonzo. You can find him on Facebook or reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.