Like fine wine, Anita Baker’s vocal chops get better with time

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Lalah Hathaway surprise special guest at MGM National Harbor Dec 2 show

By Timothy Cox
Seventies-Soul-Report Editor-In-Chief

Washington, DC — For a show that was scheduled to start at 8pm, Anita Baker’s band didn’t appear onstage until 8:55pm — After cheers and claps and chants of “Anita,” the senior-citizen singer finally entered the stage to a funky-version of the Patti LaBelle classic, “Lady Marmalade.”

Detroit’s own Anita Denise Baker was a show-stopper during a recent three-night stint at the MGM Theater near Washington, DC. (Special Photo)
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The Toledo, Ohio-born Anita Denise Baker, later explained that covering Ms. LaBelle was in homage to “Auntee Patti” and later offered a cover of “Ain’t Nobody,” in honor of “Auntee” Chaka Khan. She described the lady legends as her early influences. She grew up as a foster child in Detroit, after being abandoned by her biological mother.

Though she may have started late, she upheld her promise to provide extra time to the show – the third of a three-night stint at the Theater at MGM National Harbor in suburban Washington, DC (Oxon Hill, Maryland).

After publicly apologizing for her tardiness, the Grammy Award-winning crooner eventually announced a surprise special guest in the form of Lalah Hathaway. Anita described Lalah as the singer who carried her torch, while she was on hiatus throughout much of the 2000s. Hathaway, the famed daughter of soul music royalty, Donny Hathaway,

Anita Baker welcomes Lala Hathaway as a surprise guest during her DC show at the National Harbor MGM Theater. (Photo by Timothy Cox) _______________________________________________________________

offered one of her top classics, “Forever, For Always, For Love” (a Luther Vandross cover), along with her father’s all-time Christmas anthem,  “This Christmas,” to which Anita returned to the stage and added, “Christmas ain’t Christmas until you hear that particular song,”

Fortunately for the near-sellout of about 3,000 strong, Ms. Baker sang mostly all of her hit compositions from the late ’80s and early ’90s, including “Mystery,” “Sweet Love,””Been So Long,” “Angel” and “Caught Up in the Rapture.”

Critically speaking, on mostly every song, the Detroit-based singer failed to recreate the patented melodies as they were recorded. In other words, she played with the melodies and improvised to a point where the original melodies were often unrecognizable. At least two women who traveled from Roanoke, Va.. to witness the show agreed with this critique.

“She could have done that a couple times, but she did it way far too many times,” said Denise Ashby who, along with sister Diane Ashby, both made the four-hour drive from Southern Virginia to see one of their all-time favorites.

Denise thought perhaps “father time” had affected the singer’s past abilities to replicate her famously recorded melodies. “I definitely noticed it, but it seemed she enjoyed having the crowd sing most of the melodies for her.” In fact, at least half of her songs developed into an audience sing-along, proving the 8-time Grammy Award winner’s songs have always reflected strong melodies and catchy, memorable lyrics. If her melodic improvisation seemed a bit too intense, it didn’t seem to matter to the masses on this particular Dec. 2, 2019 winter’s evening.

Beyond the over-improvisational aspects, her creative parts evoked thoughts of jazz vocalists like her Ohio-homegirl, Nancy Wilson and “Sassy” Sarah Vaughn. But viewing her live show, also reveals her penchant for scat-singing, in the mold of Baltimore’s Billie Holliday, Betty “Bebop” Carter and Ella Fitzgerald. She brought the house down on several occasions throughout her two-hour performance. Conversely, you could also see how she’s influenced a new-generation of vocalists including Ledisi, Fantasia, Chrisette Michele and the contralto tones of Toni Braxton. At one point, she even referred to current pop vocal sensation Lizzo. “She’s doing her own thing and I love her,” added Ms. Baker. We’d be remiss not to credit her trio of lady background vocalists. Harmonically, they were excellent and on-point all night long.

Anita Baker proves that she’s stood the test of time. Here, she enamors 3,000 fans at the DC MGM casino theater with a stunning multi-media visual display. (Photo by Timothy Cox)
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Though she audibly claimed she was “exhausted” at least three times during the show, the 61-year-old songstress had a right to feel tired – especially on this rare Monday night show, after two sold-out Thanksgiving-weekend performances (Nov. 29, 30).  This final night’s show was videotaped (reportedly for future DVD sales), she announced. Toward the end of the performance, she was noticeably hobbling – as if her feet may have been hurting. She did say she was tired and if she’s not a grandmother, she’s of a grandma age group. For the record, she has two adult sons.

After an extended version of “Caught up in the Rapture,” she screamed ‘I’m getting too old for this.” 

But the nine-piece band kept pushing her and smoothly segued into “No One In The World” and the jazzy-gospel-flavored ballad, produced by the late George Duke, “Lead Me Into Love.” She also credited Mr. Duke for producing her debut album and igniting an everlasting career. 

She finished the setlist with “Same Ole Love,” “Giving You The Best That I Got” and completed the night with an encore version of “Fairytales.” Needless to say, Anita Baker has now reached superstar status and is an American music legend.

Let it be stated that Anita’s vocal dexterity is every bit as clear and powerful as it was during her debut concert – when I first witnessed her perform at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater circa 1984.

In the words of another great Detroit artist, the iconic George Clinton, “BAD – the girl is bad.”