"Mistakes, I've made a few," Smokey Robinson cooed at Constitution Hall on Saturday. And his concert indeed contained evidence of some poor choices. The lightened dreadlocks Robinson now favors, for example, give him as bad a coif as any found in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse. And the very young, very barely dressed dancers he occasionally brought onstage during his 90-minute set added a queasiness quotient to the proceedings.
Then again, the performance also proved that Robinson has run up such a goodwill surplus in his 41/2 decades of singing and songwriting that his fans didn't seem to mind such transgressions. Robinson's voice has lost a few watts over the years, but the high notes were still there. And he told the crowd that his art still gives him a charge. "Somebody asked me what I do when I hear one of my songs on the radio," he said. "I turn it up!"
Robinson, 64, talked about his glory days with Motown, recalling his many concerts at the Howard Theater off U Street. "Tickets were 1 dollar and 50 cents!" he said. "And you got a movie and a cartoon!" He also told a tale of the company Christmas party where a co-worker named Stevie Wonder handed him a tape of music and asked for some lyrics to go with it. Robinson said he wrote the words to "Tears of a Clown," references to "Pagliacci" and all, when he went home from the bash. While fulfilling an oft-screamed request for his 1959 doo-wop tune "Bad Girl," Robinson got chuckles by singing all the vocal parts and doing all the dance routines his former mates in the Miracles once handled.
He showed himself to be perhaps the most romantic songwriter in U.S. history. He sang a batch of his swoony tunes -- among them 1962's "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," 1960's "Who's Lovin' You" and 1967's "More Love" -- the genius of which was always most obvious to couples in dark rooms or parked cars. As he practically purred through "Ooo, Baby Baby," a fan was overcome by nostalgia for her adolescence: "Give me a red light and a basement, Smokey!" she screamed.
In her opening set, Gladys Knight appeared Pip-free, except for intermittent comedic cameos by her brother Bubba Knight, the former head Pip. Time has done little to diminish Knight's voice or beauty. Her version of "Midnight Train to Georgia" was lessened somewhat by Bubba's clowning around in the background as she sang. But no amount of kitsch can kill the power of perhaps the greatest ode to female subservience ever written -- "I'd rather live in his world," she sang once again, "than live without him in mine."