For a 70-year-old singer who made frequent jokes about both himself and his fans growing old, Lionel Richie put on one of the more vibrant, energetic, and camaraderie-stoking shows of recent memory at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Tuesday, August 6. Dressed first in a bright orange jacket, the soulful R&B balladeer hit the stage before the sun went down and sang “all the hits, all night long” in his still perfectly suave voice for two hours straight, from “Running with the Night” and “Easy Like Sunday Morning” to “Stuck on You,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” and a number of earlier Commodores’ hits, including “Sail On” and “Three Times a Lady.”
But songs and jokes were only part of the menu: After complimenting the intimacy of the venue — “I haven’t been here before!” he said of his first Bowl show, “I like this!” — Richie and his eye-popping digital screen backdrop shined a light and cameras on the crowd, from his own family members and Katy Perry’s parents (Perry and Richie now judge American Idol together) to generations of dancing fans, caught kissers, and smiling faces. That fired up a deep community feel for the concert, further enhanced because so many of us knew all the words to most of the songs. When it was time for a “We Are the World” singalong toward the end of the show, the whole crowd obliged, hands clasped and all.
Whether it’s the Idol connection or the meteoric rise of 1980s nostalgia, it’s not entirely clear why Lionel Richie is once again on the forefront of the pop music zeitgeist. But it’s a role he is embracing with honest joy, and it would be a shame if this “Hello” tour winds up being his grand goodbye. This pop star is still full of serenading spunk, and it will remain infectious for grandmas and grandkids alike for years to come.