By Mark Guarino
Before she started the second song of the night, Tina Turner informed her audience that she preferred to call her show “a recapping.”
Mark that down as a major understatement. Condensing 50 years of live performance into two hours is a formidable task and one that Turner, 68, did not take lightly. At the United Center Friday, the first of three nights in Chicago (the third is Monday at the Allstate Arena), the soul music legend treated her long and rocky career as a study in contrasts, connected only by the scorch in her voice and her dynamic authority of the stage.
Turner “retired” from touring in 2000 but this return eight years later felt less like a send-off. As any combination of fireworks, fanning sparklers and troupe of gymnast dancers might suggest, this celebration toasted institutional longevity — Including those two signature pins connecting her waist to her feet.
Of course her sky-high heels provided stature appropriate to her fame. But apparently that wasn’t enough since not once, not twice, but several times during the night, Turner was lifted high above the stage to lord over the audience. Considering that Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise and Jesse Jackson were among the hoi polloi forced to strain their necks, that was quite a feat of star re-assessment.
The show was separated into two sets, each starkly different from the other. The first 45 minutes hopscotched through different time periods of her career, starting with early hits from the 1960’s with former partner Ike Turner (“River Deep — Mountain High”), which led to a not-so-psychedelic recreation of Acid Queen” from The Who’s “Tommy.”
The only time the night felt like a stunted time machine was when Turner revisited her first comeback — the mega-successful hits of the early 1980’s. Swamped with synthesizers, songs like “Better Be Good To Me” sounded terribly outdated. But that was nothing compared to the stage production of “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” her song from the 1985 installment of the “Mad Max” franchise.
For this, Turner was decked in the costume from her starring role in that film, which combined gladiator kitsch and a “Barbarella” fright wig. No veteran should be asked to sing a minor pop hit while standing on a riser next to a half-naked giant wearing a codpiece, but Turner did so, this while dancers dressed in apocalyptic gear flung themselves into a very futuristic frenzy.
Luckily, there was a second half. Here, Turner settled back to show how much her voice is still rooted in deep recesses of gospel fervor, with a vibrato that is unmistakably wrenching. While the persistent choreography of the first half left her understandably winded at times; for this set her voice finally had material that felt more naturally connected to her greatest gifts.
“Help!,” the Beatles pop gem, became a piano ballad and closer to John Lennon’s lyrical plea. Likewise, a nimble cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” hit the crowd’s sweet spot, getting them on their feet and dancing. A Rolling Stones melody, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It),” was recreated in the soul revue style of that era, complete with stock footage of her performances with various members of British rock royalty — a time when she may have been one of the boys but definitely remained the queen of the ball.