Bent Nights: Tina Turner at the United Center
by Vern Hester
Everybody loves an underdog. Take Michael Phelps. The eight gold Olympic medals hanging around his neck have made the 6'4' swimmer with the protruding ears and drunken altar-boy grin the hottest dude-babe on the planet. But the all-time underdog title goes to Tina Turner, the ultimate hard-luck story with a happy ending. Nutbush Tenn., Ike Turner, the 60's chitlin circuit, the smash comeback, the multiple Grammys, the hit Oscar-nominated movie of her life, the tons of platinum records, the friendship with Oprah and the record-breaking concert attendences: It's a rags-to-riches cliché. But Turner is such a vivid personality and presence that she makes the cliché something entirely new.
Now, at age 67, she's at the start of her ( supposed ) final tour. With much of the U.S. half sold-out [ they're adding dates where they can ] and every seat on the Europeon leg long gone, Turner is hot all over again. With zero advertising, no new recordings, no renewed interest, no press build up, this last hoohah is one of the only arena shows this year that's already headed into the black. ( Big-ticket acts like George Michael, R.E.M. and Janet Jackson couldn't sell out a single night at either the United Center or the Allstate Arena while Turner has nearly sold out both for three nights. With a higher ticket price, Madonna will top Tina's gross but Tina will play to a far larger audience ] .
The new show, held Oct. 4, was a blatant 'greatest hits' bash: more polished, choreographed, glitzed up, blown up than anything I've ever seen her in. In fact, it was so polished that the sheen nearly cancelled out Tina's unique roughhouse charm. But the important questions: Did she look great? ( Yes... ) Did she burn down the house? ( In spots... ) Was it worth it? ( Well... )
The first half got off to a chugging start with Steamy Windows and Typical Male, but Turner didn't let loose until River Deep Mountain High. River Deep was exhilarating to 'experience' this time because you couldn't escape the fact that she originally recorded it in 1966 up against Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound.' So, 42 years later against the thunder of her own band and the hollow acoustics of the cavernous United Center, she still hit those gargantuan notes with jaw-dropping power. Her intensity scared the hell out of the little kid sitting next to me. Then came the stuffing. Four acrobatic dancers got into a balletic streetfight and the whole bit didn't make sense until the band rumbled into the Who's Won't Get Fooled Again. Turner came out in a shrieking red cape and had fun with Acid Queen from Tommy but, then, more stuffing. For We Don't Need Another Hero, Turner—in a sequined version of her Aunty Entity costume and what looked like a poofed-up Jayne Mansfield wig—looked like a linebacker in drag. The barrage of film clips, dancers and her get-up cut the drama of the song to the quick.
Fortunately the second half got back on track, i.e., it focused on her. A seated acoustic Let's Stay Together brought the volume and tone to a warm intimate level. A piano-driven I Can't Stand the Rain was all hardened church soul and even better than the original. Just Turner with her band turned all the flash into high-end clutter. Still, that last half is what got that crowd in the United Center in the first place: Turner cutting up. Addicted to Love was a brutal vamp with her strutting those legs in a mini and wielding the smirky sarcastic lyrics like a switchblade. By the time she got into Proud Mary, people started filing out—which was a shame. If anyone ever wondered why Turner was ever such a big deal for 50 years, Proud Mary is it. It was a smash-up of gut-bucket southern soul slammed into the new century with glam, New Wave sheen and the life-affirming fury of a survivor. I daresay that it's one for the ages.
So can we expect more from her anytime soon? I guess it's too much to ask. But if it ever happens, it would be a beautiful thing—if Turner came back with just a rock-and-roll band, some snappy minis, her attitude and her sassy self.