Patti LaBelle was in quintessential form Monday night at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall for its ninth annual "Let Freedom Ring" concert. After Joseph E. Lowery gave a five-minute acceptance speech for receiving the Coach John Thompson Jr. Legacy of a Dream Award, the evening belonged to LaBelle. She delivered all the impassioned vocals and idiosyncratic mannerisms that adoring fans have come to expect from her concerts.
During the rapturous climax of her now legendary rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," LaBelle grabbed the microphone stand and threw it across the stage floor, making for a frenzied spectacle. When she sang another of her classics, "You Are My Friend," she shimmied and shook to the point where she was kneeling, then lying on the floor toward the end - all without missing a note or beat.
LaBelle is one of the more charming divas, less prone to condescension and more toward humility and humor. And at 66, she still has one of the best voices in R&B.
If one were to compare her to a jazz artist, it wouldn't be a fellow singer but rather legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, because of her piercing, often vibrato-less tone, ecstatic wails and sheer gale force.
But while her theatrics made for a riveting show, they often veered dangerously toward self-caricature. The evening was filled with so much Patti LaBelle that she failed to make any discernible connection to King's legacy. Instead of songs more commonly associated with the 1960s civil rights era or newly commissioned compositions, she powered through such hits as "If Only You Knew," "Love, Need and Want You" and "Music Is My Way of Life."
The 140-member Let Freedom Ring Choir was shamefully underutilized; it looked like a mere stage prop behind LaBelle's seven-piece band. Under the direction of the Rev. Nolan Williams, Jr., the choir did get the spotlight during the opening "Acha Uhuru Utawale," a South African-inspired original by Williams, and a hip-hop treatment of "Oh, Freedom."
LaBelle mentioned King briefly during "When You've Been Blessed (It Feels Like Heaven)" and her encore performance of Michael Jackson's "Earth Song." As far-fetched as those tie-ins were, even less convincing were the ones she tried to make with her 1985 hit "New Attitude" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." On the whole, the evening came off feeling much more like a celebration of LaBelle's legacy than King's.