A few wannabe Pips in the crowd danced along as an enthusiastic Portland audience fired up for a soul-stirring visit from a legendary singer on Friday night.

With more than 60 years of career history to explore, the multiple Grammy-winning Gladys Knight performed a variety of her greatest hits. Material from her years with Hall of Fame backup singers the Pips was mixed with that from her more recent solo work.  The 77-year-old singer proved that she can still sell a song through distinctive phrasing and a powerful delivery.

Backed by a five-piece band and with three female singers along for this State Theatre event held at Merrill Auditorium, Knight prowled the stage, verbalizing a ton of affection for the crowd and gratitude for being able to succeed at what she loves doing. She’s a uniquely enduring veteran who knows how to forge a smiling rapport with her audience and hold on to it.

The length of her career became apparent when she offered the doo-wop-styled “Every Beat of My Heart” to take many of the older folks in the crowd more than half-a century back to the beginnings of post-World War II popular music.  Likewise, “Nitty Gritty” put the shake back in ’60s soul as the two keyboard players in the band added detail while the electric bassist, drummer and percussionist pumped things up. “I Got to Use My Imagination” also scored with its refrain of “keep on keepin’ on.”

As the repertoire moved forward chronologically, orchestral washes approximated by the onstage synthesizer became increasingly prominent. “I like that song,” Knight proclaimed after delivering a warmly flowing “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” “Love Overboard” brought things a bit more upbeat.

A standout version of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” started quietly before building to a soaring finish.  The intimate feel of “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” was nailed, its touching message dramatically imparted.

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After reminiscing about meeting Barbra Streisand, the singer added just enough twists to an arrangement of “The Way We Were” to make it her own.

Knight did not say anything about her own film and TV career. She also didn’t mention the Oscar-nominated documentary “Summer of Soul” that features her with the Pips, in their late-’60s prime, singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (a song conspicuously missing from this performance).

Things got soulful with a neo-gospel medley that brought all the singers forward for some deep harmonies.  Knight gave a broader perspective to the always moving “Someone to Watch Over Me” in a rendition that added some jazzy piano work to further situate the classic tune.

A stretched-out take on the never-too-late “Midnight Train to Georgia” brought the 90-minute concert to a close on a nostalgic note, sweetened by the knowledge that Gladys Knight, after all these years, is still onboard and delivering the goods.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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