When you go to any concert led by John Morris Russell, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's principal pops conductor, you know you're going to have a good time. Russell always promises you that much.
"We are going to have fun tonight," he yells from the podium. And we do.
The Oct. 6 pops concert, a tribute to Motown, covered all the bases. The BPO was rocking. The brass was blaring. Sal Andolina, on sax, was wailing out. Even the strings got in on the soulful act. Ansgarius Aylward, assistant concertmaster, contributed a heart-melting solo to "Georgia On My Mind."
The concert was full of off-roading.
Morris brought along a terrific singer, Melinda Doolittle. Doolittle, who on this night was celebrating her 25th birthday, came to fame in 2007 during season six of "American Idol." She is a seasoned performer and knew how to work the crowd. And yes, she changed clothes at intermission, from a filmy midnight-blue pantsuit to a black and silver dress.
Best of all, she radiated joy and passion.
A highlight of the night was when she performed "Midnight Train To Georgia" as a ballad. As I understood it, Jim Weatherly, who wrote the song, wanted to hear it that way. He asked her to sing it.
I sat up eagerly, hearing that. My rule of thumb is, all else being equal, any song sounds better as a ballad. And Doolittle sang the daylights out of it.
"That was beautiful," I heard a woman behind me say when the song was over. And it was. Gladys Knight made a great case for it at an uptempo pace, but Doolittle made it completely different. "I'd rather live in his world than live without him in mine." I am sure a lot of people stopped for the first time and thought about the grace of that lyric.
Doolittle and Russell made a good team. Both of them let us know that the rules of decorum we are used to at Kleinhans Music Hall could be broken on a whim. We could dance, sing, do what we want. I took advantage, bawling along with "Hit the Road, Jack" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Other audience members sang backup as Doolittle sang.
Russell, on the podium, created his own fun. He began the night with a snappy Duke Ellington medley. That growling, sultry Ellington sound spotlighted the skills of the BPO.
"He was the man. Holy cow!" Russell exulted at the end.
Russell's nerdiness, as I have pointed out before, is a big part of the fun. No concert is complete unless he gets to dance, preferably with an elegant, hip singer -- and yes, that happened. The big audience roared as he danced with Doolittle. He looked like Dilbert, from the comics. It's a joke that never fades.
Doolittle, too, brought a lot of individuality to the evening. She was surprised to learn, she told us, that a certain James Brown song was written by Betty Jean Newsome, his girlfriend at the time. "Knowing a woman wrote this song made me hear it differently," she said. Then she launched into "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."
If her new knowledge made her hear the song differently, her singing of it made us hear it differently, too. She also brought her own spin to Stevie Wonder's "I Wish Those Days Would Come Back Once More." Aretha Franklin's "Since You've Been Gone" and "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" (led by Russell, we all got to sing backup).
People hollered so much at the end of the night that she brought the house down with an encore, "Proud Mary." It brought the adventurous night to a cheery and uplifting close.
BPO Pops: The Soul of Motown with Melinda Doolittle, Oct. 6 and 7 in Kleinhans Music Hall.