New York’s 34th Street has seen its share of miracles – especially during the month of December – but it seemed particularly aglow last night at Hammerstein Ballroom, where the 10th installment of VH1’s popular Divas series was taped. This episode, dubbed “Divas Celebrates Soul,” airs tonight on the music channel at 9 p.m. EST and was perfectly timed: like the holiday season, it had a soft spot for high pageantry and shiny packaging.
Despite all their glitz and grand gestures, at their core, the Divas shows are about making connections – usually between artists from different genres, different generations and different ends of the sales spectrum. Sunday evening’s performances expanded that scope by adding an extra variable: location. Each of the brief performances by the evening’s leading ladies, backed by the reliable house band the Roots, was offset by a short segment focused on a part of the world notable for its contribution to soul music. Some choices, like Memphis, were obvious; others, like London, less so.
The same could be said of the evening’s performers. Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott and Jennifer Hudson have built their careers expanding the boundaries of R&B but Kelly Clarkson, Jessie J and Florence Welch are soulful more in spirit than in form. Still, the show found clever ways to unite their disparate styles. Welch’s show-opening performance of “Shake It Out” was fiery and churning, dual drummers emphasizing the song’s tribal elements while Welch swanned gracefully above. Its sustained sense of rapture gave way to a more instant gratification: with Clarkson, Hudson and Blige splicing a frantic rendition of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” with radically reconfigured versions of their own hits.
It was the first of many times that the night leapt across decades. Martha Reeves joined Sharon Jones and Marsha Ambrosius for a rollicking run through Reeves’ “Nowhere to Run” during a tribute to the music of Detroit. In a section dedicated to Chicago, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan and Erykah Badu turned in an ecstatic version of Staples’ “I’ll Take You There” that played out like a master class in vocal control, Staples doling out rich, low notes until the song’s closing moments, where she slyly quoted both Badu’s “Tyrone” and Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” During a segment centered on the music of Chicago, Badu and Khan performed “Ain’t Nobody” as a series of escalating peaks, each vocalist goading the other with a series of increasingly stunning melismatic runs before ending the song in a sustained, emotional embrace. The segment dedicated to Philadelphia moved slowly from darkness to light; after Black Thought helmed a stormy rendition of the Roots’ “You Got Me,” with Badu and Scott sharing the song’s slithering chorus, Boyz II Men delivered a sudden, jubilant performance of “Motown Philly.” (It seemed the evening was working with one of the looser definitions of the word “diva.”)
Kelly Clarkson, nursing a sprained ankle, used her lone spotlight to tear through a toothy version of her own “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” her voice barreling fiercely up the song’s center. Welch acknowledged her debt to Annie Lennox with a pristine take on Lennox’s aching “Walking on Broken Glass” and Blige meted out the crescendos of her searching “Mr. Wrong” in careful doses, working slowly to a sweltering finale. Those songs moved from uncertainty to confidence, but Jill Scott’s hushed reading of “Hear My Call” felt like emotional paralysis, the singer calling out to the divine in the midst of deep anguish. By contrast, Jessie J and Jennifer Hudson delivered odes to joy; the former’s “Domino” was a thumping anthem of self-confidence while Hudson’s “Night of Your Life” – which she belted out in a skin-tight hot pink dress with a sweetheart neckline, perhaps from the Jessica Rabbit Collection? – reveled in another kind pleasure entirely.
There was even an opportunity to wonder what might have been. Late in the night, Welch, Sharon Jones and Wanda Jackson paid tribute to Amy Winehouse, backed by Jones’s band, the Dap-Kings. Their chosen pair of songs highlighted the late singer’s fascinating duality; Jones and Jackson played her feistier side with a scorching rendition of “You Know I’m No Good,” while Welch found the wounded center of “Back to Black.” The performance made the sting of Winehouse’s death feel real again. In an evening dedicated to filtering old soul through new singers, her loss was all the more tragic.
But sadness doesn’t make for much of a finale, especially at this time of year. The evening closed with a rambunctious Sharon Jones whooping her way through “He Said I Can,” shimmying joyously at center stage in a gold dress and hitting each of the song’s hard stops with the conviction of a Southern preacher. Watch for her to top the bill next year.