Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

When Smokey sings, you see satin trousers

We arrived at Vicar Street expecting a night of pedigree soul music. We left with Smokey Robinson’s satin trousers as the main topic of conversation. Strange show, strange show. When you think of Smokey Robinson, you think of the great …

Tue, Jul 10, 2007, 10:10


We arrived at Vicar Street expecting a night of pedigree soul music. We left with Smokey Robinson’s satin trousers as the main topic of conversation.

Strange show, strange show. When you think of Smokey Robinson, you think of the great songs from his days as Motown’s songcrafter-in-chief. Last night, though, Smokey decided that most of these hits would be best suited to a medley. Sure, the show was topped and tailed with greatness – he started with a banging “Going To A Go-Go” and there was a hugely emotional take of “Tracks Of My Tears” at the end to remind you that when Smokey sings, as Martin Fry once noted, you hear violins – but the rest of the two hour show wouldn’t have been out of place at the Braemor Rooms.

A bunch of musicians who couldn’t look or sound more unsoulful if they tried (special shout out to the robotic drummer with the stupid synthetic drum-pads and the male backing singer who looked as if he was doing long-division math in his head). Two bizarre female dancers who’d regularly shimmy onstage like over-eager Las Vegas lapdancers for a minute or two in costume, do a pointless couple of moves and scarper away again. A very strange choice of material. The infomercial for the new album mid-show. The extremely dull set of hoary old standards.

And then, well, there was Smokey himself. He was the Motown trooper who wrote the songs the whole world sings. During a golden run in the 1960s, Robinson produced hit after hit, one “My Girl” after “I Second That Emotion”. He reckons himself he’s written about 4,000 songs which is some innings, though it’s fair to say that quality control standards vary somewhat across his canon.

It’s odd then that this high-ticket Dublin show will be remembered more for Smokey’s extraordinary satin strides and dressing-gown than what he actually sang. Instead of emphasing the great songs he had a hand in, he instead skimmed quickly over them as if they were an inconvenience. To consign some of the greatest soul songs ever written to an one minute turn really is a bizarre way of doing business.

But to Smokey, a man who earns a lot of his corn these days from the Smokey Robinson Food company which flogs such frozen food products as Down Home Pot Roast, Seafood Gumbo and Smokey’s Red Beans & Rice, it probably all made sense. He wants people to hear the new material like the “Timeless Love” album when he gets to make like Joe Dolan. He doesn’t simply want to be seen as a heritage act whose best days are behind him.

A couple of years ago, the great Al Green was in a similar bind. He could perform every night of the week, but the crowds wanted old-school Al. He’d try to tempt them with some of his newer tunes from the albums that no-one bought, but the audiences were not biting. They wanted the “Love & Happiness” Al, the “Take Me To The River” Al. Thing was, and Al probably knew this, his new material just wasn’t good enough.

So he hooked up with his old producer Willie Mitchell again to see if the magic was still there. Listen to 2003’s “I Can’t Stop” or 2005′s “Everything’s OK” and you can hear that the Rev is back in business again. Now, when you go to see Al, he mixes stuff from those two new albums with the old golden hits and everyone goes home smiling (the ladies even have roses with which to remember their night with the Rev).

Imagine, then, if Smokey took a Green direction. Instead of hawking a terrible (and it really is terrible) album of love standards, stick him in a studio with some players who’ve still got their soul chops. Make him listen to his own greatest hits. Make him remember what it was like back in Motor City. Make him challenge himself by writing the kind of songs he used to write. You’d either get a very annoyed soul legend or one hell of a new album at the end of it.

But chances are that won’t happen. Robinson doesn’t need it, for one, and he’s probably surrounded by a bunch of Mister Ten Percents who’re happy to keep selling him like he is. He’ll keep doing shows like Vicar Street and satin-trousering 50,000 euro a show. He’ll play a circuit back home where he can do his thing and the crowds will lap it up. The publishing royalties and the frozen gumbo sales will keep him in the style he has become accustomed to (no, there’s no getting away from those pants).

Yet maybe some day, some day, Smokey will take a chance. He’ll wonder if he can still cut a song which makes people go wow. He’ll think he can still pen a song which will have kids in Tennessee and Tipperary swooning. And he’ll have a go. That will be indeed be some day.