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The cool breeze and the warmth of Natalie Cole made a perfect combination Friday night at LaSalle Park as her fluid voice and energetic stage presence lived up to the legacy of her late father, Nat King Cole.

Everything seemed to come together for a perfect evening as the Friendship Festival officially opened with Cole's performance.

What started out as a sparse crowd mushroomed into tens of thousands as the threat of rain seemed less ominous. Cole and her seven-piece band opened with the title track from her new album, "Good to Be Back," perhaps as an indication that her long battle with drug and alcohol addiction finally is over.

Cole went through several attempts at rehabilitation in the early '80s, but did not succeed until 1986. Her 1987 album, "Everlasting," earned a Grammy nomination.

The relaxed, friendly atmosphere reflected the theme of the 1990 Friendship Festival, and throughout the crowd people danced, laughed and sang along with Cole's hits including "Miss You Like Crazy" and "Everlasting."

Cole's true talent shines much brighter live than on a recording, and her rendition of the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" combined soul, blues and a little reggae for a fresh twist on a classic. Her soulful style and clear voice seem almost surprisingly good as she makes even her old recordings sound fresh.

When Cole began her own classic song, "Love on My Mind," LaSalle Park suddenly was filled with almost 50,000 back-up singers as she torched her way through the song.

Cole's latest hit, "Wild Women Do (But They Don't Regret It)" brought the dancer out in many people, and her version of her father's classic, "When I Fall In Love" seemed to make people do just that.

Estimates on the crowd size varied throughout the night, ranging from 30,000 to 75,000. No matter what the numbers, however, the crowd was having a good time.

The only sign of any imperfection in Cole's arrangements was a slightly bland "Pink Cadillac," her 1987 hit off her "Everlasting" LP. The song seemed to just go through the motions instead of driving it home.

In spite of the flatness of the arrangement, the crowd had fun with it anyway, singing along with Cole.

As Cole's set wound down, the fireworks in the hazy humidity over the city skyline made a beautiful scene accompanied by Cole's music. Her polished but simple stage show was a perfect complement to the city backdrop, and even the weather cooperated to start the Friendship Festival off right.

Natalie Cole

Singer performs at LaSalle Park

Friday night at Friendship Festival

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