Charlie Wilson, one of the greatest R&B artists of all time, came to Verizon Arena last Friday night and performed for a near-sold-out crowd as part of his Forever Charlie Tour with special guests Joe and Kem. Joe opened the show, Kem followed with a great set and Charlie rocked the house. If you missed it, you missed out on something wonderful.
As always, I was running late to meet up with my date. We arrived at Verizon Arena 10 minutes after 8 p.m. and it was a sight to see. People walking up and down the street, dressed to the nines. Men all dressed in colorful suits, with matching shoes and hats; ladies in jumpsuits, dresses, and classy jeans. It was some kind of amazing. There were black and brown people everywhere, candy-coated cars trying to find a place to park and a man on his Harley playing Uncle Charlie’s “Hey Lover” as the perfect background music to it all. After circling the block twice we found a spot and made a beeline for the arena.
Walking up the hill toward the entrance we passed a group of couples in their late 40s. One of them said, “Look at the babies” as we passed. That was the moment I knew we were likely going to be the youngest couple in attendance. But that didn’t matter to me one bit. I was here to see my Uncle Charlie, the man whose music has been played every day of my life, as the background to our summer cookouts, the slow jams in my cousin’s car, cleaning music on Saturday mornings, out on the boat at the lake and the music that grown folks always tell me “Y’all don’t know nothing about.”
As we made our way to our seats Joe was finishing up and asked the audience, “How you feeling, Little Rock?” The crowd responded with screams, hoops, hollers and whistles. The arena was still bustling with people coming in and out trying to find their seats and friends. Joe continued the show with a few of his hits including, ‘More” and “I Want to Know,” both of which had all the women in the audience out of their seats, hands raised in the air, belting out notes that we couldn’t forget if we tried. During the brief intermission after Joe’s performance everyone raced to the concession stands to buy margaritas, popcorn and hot dogs. My date and I settled on water. The air in the arena was thick from the afternoon heat and moist from that evening’s rain. The stage crew finished setting up, the house lights went back down, and the band began to play as Kem made his way to the stage.
The crowd went wild as the spotlight shone on him. He wore a gray and white snakeskin suit tailored to his slim frame, and white sneakers with a golden emblem on the front. He looked good. Kem moved and grooved to the music, shaking his hips in time with the bass and was just feeling the funk. It was hard for me to sit still; I had to get up and dance with him. He sang some of his hits, including “Love Calls,” “Nobody” and “Loving You,” which had all the couples hugged up and swaying back and forth to the sound of his voice and vibrations of the guitar.
After a few songs Kem took a moment to talk to the audience. He said, “In case you didn’t know, you’re listening to grown folks music right now.” The crowd cheered. “Do we have any grown folks in the house tonight?” The crowd roared, low hoops and hollers from the men, “woo woo woo,” and screams and cheers from the women with a few whistles. He showed off his outfit, saying, “Back in Detroit they called me high and tight,” in reference to his buttocks, which were on prominent display in his suit. He was cheeky. He straightened his pants legs so he could flash his shoes as well.
Kem said he was “all right in the Rock” and the crowd hooped and hollered. “Ladies, how y’all feel? Brothas, how y’all doing? How many brothas are here with the woman they love?” The men erupted into a booming chorus of yeas, woos and whistles. Kem said the show was for the women and he was trying to help the fellas out. “I’m singing for the ladies, but I’m working for the fellas.” He told the men to pull the women close to them and sing and repeat after him, “Oh … oh … oh girl … baby … I love you … I need you … I’m gon’ buy you that $6,500 Louis Vuitton handbag tomorrow, when I wake up in the morning, it’s the first thing I’m gonna do.” The crowd erupted into laughter (and cheers from the women). The band eased back into “Share My Life.” Kem went on to sing “Dreamer,” “Promise to Love,” “Into You” and “You’re On My Mind.”
One of the highlights in the show was when Kem sang, “Find Your Way.” He chose to do a call and response with a man in the audience. He first chose an older black man, and instructed him that he would sing “How did you find you way?” and the man was to sing “Back in my life.” The man was off key and mildly enthusiastic but though the crowd still cheered for him, he quickly returned to his seat. Kem said he was an “equal opportunity entertainer” and asked a middle-aged white man to come sing the same lyrics. The white man came to the edge of the stage, rocked and snapped to the beat of the song and sang with conviction, “Back in my life.” The crowd went wild. Kem had to take a second to regroup and then said, “You got soul brother; don’t think they were expecting that.” The crowd cheered them on as they continued to sing; the air was electric. Toward the end of his set Kem sat at the piano and sang “Why Would You Stay” and a few other songs. He finished by giving praise to God, thanking Little Rock and exiting the stage accompanied by a beautiful guitar solo.
The house lights came up and there was another intermission. The big screens showed footage from Charlie’s tour and promotionals for his new album. The crew set up quickly, the house lights dimmed, and the band came on stage. The emcee introduced Charlie Wilson to the beat of the Gap Band’s “Party Train.” Charlie had on a shimmering suit jacket that looked like a disco ball and his dancers were dressed in short sequined dresses in primary colors and fedoras to match. They rocked it out in a line dance formation and moved across the stage like a funky disco train. The crowd was ecstatic and cheered through the entire song. He followed up with “Charlie’s Jam,” and played a good portion of his “Forever Charlie” album, including “Somebody Loves You,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Goodnight Kisses,” “Unforgettable,” “My Favorite Part of You,” “Hey Lover” and “Birthday Dress.” He took it back for the “old schoolers” in the audience with “It’s Our Anniversary,” which prompted some touching and kissing by the couples in our section and across the arena. As far as they eye could see there were couples grooving to the beat and loving on each other, making me feel way too young to be there.
Charlie continued with some of his newer music, including, “Ooh Wee,” “Shawty Come Back” and “Can’t Live Without You.” He brought the youthful groove back as he sang a cover of “Beautiful” by Pharrell. The audience was up on their feet and swinging to the beat. Then the band transitioned into the opening notes of “There Goes My Baby” and the arena shook. There were shrieks and hollers coming from all around and an energy that was overwhelming. There were couples dancing in the aisles, swaying back and forth, Chicago stepping and kissing to the words of the song. The arrangement of the song was spot on for maximum crowd pleasure with a break in between the second chorus and the hook where Charlie got in line with the band and they “walked it out,” led by the bass guitarist and tailed by the saxophone. He broke out into the running man and followed with a soul train line with the dancers and the band. The song ended with a 3-minute guitar and sax solo that kept the crowd going while Charlie and the dancers changed outfits backstage. The dancers came back out in white suits and hats, for a teaser ode to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and quickly transitioned into Charlie’s version of “Uptown Funk.” Their suits lit up and flashed LED dots of neon oranges, yellow, green, blue, pink, and red. It was stunning.
Charlie changed into a sparkling black tuxedo and sang a few more Gap Band classics, including “Burn Rubber On Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” “Outstanding” and “Yearning For Your Love.” He changed gears and played two of my favorites, “Magic” and “Charlie (Last Name Wilson)” to the delight of the crowd. He took a moment to catch his breath, sat down to wipe his face with a towel, and sang a tribute to Little Rock to the tune of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”: “Little Rock … Can I hear you scream babyyy.” The crowd roared. “Darling you send me — you thrill me — honest you do, honest you do.” He said, “This is the best crowd I’ve had in a long time.” The audience cheered and hollered for over a minute while he looked on and smiled. He took a moment and asked the audience, “If you came to party with Uncle Charlie say yeah.” A resounding yeah rolled over the arena. “Well, go like me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and use #ForeverCharlie.” The crowd laughed and cheered. He mentioned his book, “I Am Charlie Wilson,” which goes on sale June 30, and asked everyone in the audience to support him and buy a copy.
He changed again into a crisp all-white suit and took a moment to praise God. He gave his testimony about being delivered from addiction and how good God has been to him and the blessings he has received in his life. He gave a shout out to Broadway Joe for helping make his Little Rock show happen and supporting him, and then asked the audience if they wanted to hear the song that stayed at No. 1 for 16 weeks. The crowd responded with cheers as the opening notes of “You Are” began to play. Two dancers came out in white trefoil shimmering butterfly wings and danced around him and across the stage. He followed up with “I Wanna Be Your Man,” gave glory to God once again, and said goodnight to Little Rock.
The line of people trying to exit the arena was long and jumbled with the rain making it more difficult to navigate but we eventually made our way outside and back to our car. We reveled in the magic of the evening, the fantastic performances and the overwhelming feeling of love that was present that night.
Charlie Wilson proved how great he is Friday night. The crowd was on its feet the entire performance with hands and voices raised. There was kissing and hugging — entirely too much PDA for my tastes. But it was a beautiful sight to see: There was an energy that just could not be ignored. The entire show was wonderfully choreographed with Charlie running, jumping, stepping, sliding and dancing across the stage with more enthusiasm and energy than most of today’s R&B crooners. He is a true performer, an awesome talent, with a stage presence that is electrifying. You better put it on your bucket list: Charlie Wilson live is spectacular.