Gladys Knight ably held on to her title of “Empress of Soul” before a packed house Friday night on the main stage at Proctors.
For an hour and a half, the legendary singer belted out hit after hit from her Motown years with the Pips, her long solo career and beyond. Backed by two keyboards, guitars, bass, drums and four backing vocalists, Knight wowed an enthusiastic crowd over and over — receiving at least three standing ovations.
Radiant in a sparkling red suit, Knight opened with an energetic run through the classic “The Nitty Gritty,” prancing about the stage like she owned the place — and she most certainly did. “Love Overboard” continued in a funky vein, with Knight tentatively pushing her vocals during the song’s crescendos.
The singer was relaxed throughout, pausing between each song to crack wise with the audience, responding to catcalls from the crowd with an occasional, “I heard that!” She talked about seeing the film “Forrest Gump” in theaters for the first time and her shock at hearing her own song, “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” She then tackled the track with gusto, as her band powered through the slinking chord changes.
As much fun as the upbeat numbers were, Knight’s vocals really shone on the ballads. “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” early in the set showed off a dynamic range most singers could barely touch, while the uplifting “I Hope You Dance” climaxed with powerful vocal acrobatics during the song’s hook. “Where We Were” was perhaps the best of the slower numbers, earning Knight her first standing ovation.
Halfway through the show, Knight announced that she is working on a new solo album, “Another Journey,” and promptly jumped into the first single. The track was a bit out of place amidst the classic soul and funk delivered throughout the rest of the set, with violin highlighting a skittering hip-hop beat. The vocal line was pure Gladys, though, and earned massive applause.
A medley of soul greats — “The Man I Love,” “Stormy Weather” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” — was a highlight, showcasing the singer’s roots. But it was just a primer for “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” with Knight and band delivering a fierce performance of the song, complete with audience participation to seal the deal.
At the end of the set, Knight brought out her brother (and former band member from the Pips) Merald “Bubba” Knight. He spent most of his time onstage conducting a stand-up routine, complete with one-liners such as, “It’s hard out here for a Pip.” But when he joined his sister for The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” the results were transcendent, and he wowed with “Love and Happiness,” complete with a James Brown interlude.
Knight closed with perhaps her biggest hit, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” with the curtains dropping before the band stopped playing. Though some may have been disappointed by the lack of an encore, the rest of the set spoke for itself.