North Fork Theatre
November 8, 2006
Since returning to regular touring in 1998 after an eighteen-year hiatus, Olivia Newton-John has been performing internationally every year. As one of the most popular recording artists of the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Newton-John scored dozens of top forty hits, including five #1 singles, and hit the top ten of the country charts seven times. Today, she’s most fondly remembered for her signature role in the film Grease, but that high-water mark in her career came after many successful years as a pop-country artist, and was followed by many more hits on the pop parade.
Since Newton-John has been writing and recording more frequently in the past few years, and she visits mostly the same venues every year, her challenge is two-fold: to keep the set list varied enough to keep the returning fans from being bored, and to do justice to all phases of her successful career, while still making room for the new music she has been creating. At her performance at Westbury this year, she accomplished both of those difficult tasks.
Opening with “Pearls On A Chain”, the first track from her new spiritual record, Grace and Gratitude, Newton-John showed her confidence in her latest work; previous tours have opened with one of her signature hits. The audience seemed somewhat familiar with the new material, and her clearly evident sincerity won them over quickly. She moved right into her #1 pop single “Have You Never Been Mellow”. She still hit those high, breathy notes without breaking a sweat, and the casual fan sitting next to me lit up with warm recognition, now that Newton-John was singing a song that most AM radio listeners know by heart.
But the audience didn’t seem fully involved until the third song, “A Little More Love.” Waves of applause rose up as the band played the distinctive hook, and while it’s one of the most difficult songs of her catalog, she absolutely nailed it. It was a massive hit that Newton-John has left off of her set list for many years, and fans were clearly happy to have it back in the rotation.
The sheer number of hits that Newton-John had during her years as a hitmaker make it impossible for her to include them all. She has wisely been rotating some of the second- and third-tier singles from year to year. One way she has done so has been through including a country and rock medley over the past few years. After discussing the controversy of “An Aussie girl with an English producer winning Nashville awards”, she launched into a pleasing medley of three of her biggest country hits: “Let Me Be There”, “Please Mr. Please” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know).” While she has often sung “Come On Over”, “Jolene”, “If Not For You” and “Banks of the Ohio” during this segment in previous years, this show was pretty light on the country years, sticking only to the biggest hits.
One of her movies, Xanadu, was eviscerated by critics upon its release, but has since become something of a cult classic. While she hammed it up singing the title track, she gave a quiet dignity to her #1 single from the film, “Magic”, jazzing up the arrangement to make it sound more contemporary. The strength of the songs she has recorded have allowed them to be arranged in ways more fitting for 2006. Gone are the headbands and bouncy beats for her biggest hit, “Physical”, which was successfully reworked as a slow, samba number that she sang on a stool, surrounded by her backing vocalists. “Please Mr. Please” was also slowed down, with the signature hook being played on acoustic guitar.
Another highlight of the evening was a medley of what Newton-John refers to as her “rock and roll songs”. This has been a longer medley in the past – it once grew as long as six songs – but the wheat has since been separated from the chaff. “Heart Attack” may have been a big hit, but audiences weren’t digging it as much as the remaining songs. “Twist of Fate” and “Make a Move On Me” were played to loud applause, and even though it barely dented the charts, fans seem very happy that “The Rumour” remains in the mix. Since returning to the stage eight years ago, the list of hits that she has yet to perform has gotten so small that fans are down to hoping to hear “Soul Kiss” and “Livin’ in Desperate Times”, or album cuts like “Boats Against the Current”. With her willingness to respond to those wishes, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear those cuts in the next couple of years.
Veteran artists are often criticized if they play just the hits; that brands them as an “oldies act.” However, if they stick to the new material, they’re accused of cheating the audience that came to hear the songs they know by heart. Newton-John has worked hard to strike a delicate balance of old and new material. Her set lists have gotten better as the new music itself has gotten better. While the powerful “Not Gonna Give In To It”, from her deeply personal 1994 album Gaia, has been a crowd favorite for years, the songs that were truly new at the time of her touring have been a mixed bag. Her 1998 return to country, Back With a Heart, was a mediocre effort, and her duets album (2) from 2000 wasn’t any better. Those cuts slowed the show down and had fans waiting to hear the hits. But since recording Indigo: Women of Song, a fantastic covers album in 2004, her concerts have benefited greatly from her new material. “Cry Me a River” is the only song she’s still performing from that album, but it once again was a classy, moving performance that showcased the lower register of her voice in a way her hits never did.
Over the past two years, she has released two self-written projects. Stronger Than Before in 2005 focused on triumphing over adversity, and was mainly influenced by her experience with breast cancer. The title track was performed well this year. Her newest album, Grace and Gratitude, was written in the wake of the disappearance of her boyfriend, and the performances of songs from that spiritual set were the most passionate of the evening. Newton-John sings her old hits with an approach that shows she deeply respects them, but she is clearly most committed to the new, personal material she has written. The title track, “Grace and Gratitude”, and “Love is Letting Go of Fear”, were among the best performances of the night, and indicate that as an artist, she’s passed her commercial peak but is only beginning to reach her creative peak. I suspect with proper distribution and publicity, she could experience quite the renaissance.
As usual, there were many audience members, particularly families with young children, that were there to see Sandy. The set-closing Grease segment received wild applause from the audience. “You’re The One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You” were capped with a sing-a-long version of “Summer Nights.” While this is the most staged and predictable section of her concerts every year, it’s also the reason that a never-ending parade of children keep going up to the stage to bring Newton-John flowers and gifts. There were two kids in the audience who, earlier in the show, brought flowers up to Newton-John and let her know it was their birthday. These kids aren’t getting concert tickets to see ONJ because they love “Let Me Be There” or “Please Mr. Please.” They want to see the girl from Grease, and that segment of the show is indispensable for a large part of the audience.
As an encore, Newton-John returned to do two more songs that serve as the current bookends to her career. The first, “I Honestly Love You”, won Newton-John two Grammy awards way back in 1974, and was her first #1 single. It was a pretty ballad then, but it has aged remarkably well. In fact, the song about a woman confessing her love to another man, even though they’re both in relationships, is far more effective and poignant when sung by an older woman. “If we both were born in another place and time” just doesn’t pack much of a punch from a woman in her early twenties. The finality of the choices a woman of Newton-John’s age has usually made in life adds a sad resignation to the song these days. It sounds a lot more substantive in concert today than it did on record back in 1974.
For me, however, the peak of the night was the final song, which is closing cut of her new album. Every day with my class, we start the morning by saying The Prayer of Saint Francis, and “Instrument of Peace” is based on that prayer. The song was already bound to be meaningful to me, but currently dealing with the serious illness of a close family member has made one of the closing lines, “It is in dying, we are released”, bring comfort to me every time I hear it. On record, it’s one of Newton-John’s strongest performances as a vocalist – hell, she’s rarely sounded better than she does on the new album – but live, it was a moment of transcendence.
Newton-John was dismissed early in her career as being little more than a pretty face; one critic said that “If white bread could sing, it would sound like Olivia Newton-John.” A funny thing happens with time. She’s still beautiful, but it’s her music and talent that have aged so well. Excellent taste in material, coupled with a songwriting talent that has blossomed in recent years, have left Newton-John with a rich and substantial catalog that continues to grow. Her enthusiasm for the stage and the enduring strength of her vocals make her a wise choice for concert-goers looking to rediscover an old friend that has gotten better with time.
Pearls on a Chain
Have You Never Been Mellow
A Little More Love
Stronger Than Before
Medley: Let Me Be There/Please Mr. Please/If You Love Me (Let Me Know)
Love Is Letting Go Of Fear
Not Gonna Give In To It
Cry Me a River
Medley: The Rumour/Make A Move On Me/Twist of Fate
Grace and Gratitude
You’re The One That I Want
Hopelessly Devoted To You
I Honestly Love You
Instrument of Peace