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Monday, December 19, 2011

VH1 Divas Get a Soul Overload

Of tonight's (oft to be rerun) special, VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul, you'll have a rollicking good time at kick-off but may well want to turn in early. It's not merely the duration of the 2-hour special (including copious commercials) but, after the first 45-minutes, the best of it has mostly passed.

And what was Miss Independent, Kelly Clarkson in the flesh, doing there? Ok, she's got a great pop voice but soul? Kelly, tragically, looked so bovine, I was checking her misguidedly clinging outfits for signs of udders. I know Kelly thinks everyone just thinks she's fat but, reality check, Miss Kelly, forearms don't lie! The meat on those babies shouldn't swing like pendulums do as you fist pump the air, all right?

On the other hand, Misses Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson ("JHud") stunned in their thin, trim looks in a variety of sexy, becoming outfits. Weight Watchers, I'm there (again)! These three ladies opened the show in the strongest portion that frequently seemed like an elaborate plug for the upcoming film release of "Joyous Noise," starring the odd coupling of Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton. Those two amazing broads, who were the first set of emcees, are always a joy for me to hear and see. A class act even if, at this point, Dolly and Joan Rivers seem to be sharing the same face.

Early on, soul music and the history of it, was a steady focus. A thread throughout, talking heads discuss soul music, including archival interviwees like Smokey Robinson, Isaac Hayes, Teddy Pendergrass, Sade and Curtis Mayfield amongst others.

While certain divas like Erykah ("badass") Badu and Marsha Ambrosius (who seemed taxed beyond her abilities) simply annoy, the roster for the night was chockful of the divine: Chaka Khan, Estelle, Mavis Staples, Martha Reeves (now Vandella-less, her voice a glorious wreck) and a dottering Wanda Jackson who, nonetheless, proved to be a delight (assisted by a nurturing Sharon Jones).

Brooklyn's own Miss Jones was, in fact, a major beacon of light throughout this show, as her cult phenom is on the cusp of breakthrough as major artist. Her first appearance stunned in a fauxhawk that resembled Divine's hair in the later part of Female Trouble. The UK impressed with the voices of Florence (Welch) and The Machine, and Jessie J. Dear Florence looks like the love child of Vanessa Redgrave and David Bowie while Miss J pranced about in a variety of punk glad rags in true rock-star fashion.

But, before halftime, the show became tedious, unfocused and even off-topic. The Amy Winehouse portion was a pandering snoozefest and even Florence and the Machine seemed to deliver a half-hearted cover of "Back to Black."

The whole thing ended oddly, abruptly and without real closure with its ode to classic Chicago soul that included a great version of Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me," rendered by Sharon Jones and others, and Chaka Khan & Mary J. Blige doing a rousing "Ain't Nobody" for finale. Chaka's powerful pipes have not been diminished by time and Blige treats her singing partner respectfully. Unlike that VH1 Divas show past where Whitney Houston trotted Ms Khan out for "I'm Every Woman," simply to walk all over her by having the more amped mike in hand, reducing the great Chaka to back-up girl status. Feeling the wrath of Khan, Whitney?

Prior to the Chicago segment, though, was the song that could have -- and should have -- coalesced and ended this show if the editing department was on the ball. It was Jennifer Hudson's Night of Your Life. A new number, magnificently soulful, very diva-esque, and begging for remixes to spill it onto the dance floor. I'll bet those mixes are already under wraps and in the can. Soul divas are still happening, and their beat goes on, beyond this uneven special that, nonetheless, brought together a brilliant array of talent.

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