King of the 1980s slow dance and pastel-suited soppiness, Lionel Richie is big business once more. Hello, he may have wondered backstage, having sold out London’s largest arena, is it Tuskegee they’re coming for? His current album, named in honour of his Alabama hometown, lightly bastes hits including “Say You, Say Me”, “Easy” and, yes, “Hello”, after a countryfied fashion. It topped the US charts. Since such Nashville duetting partners as Jennifer Nettles and Billy Currington are about as familiar here as West Ham’s midfield is there (OK, Shania Twain and Willie Nelson also feature on the record, but the point stands), British fans doubtless came for the originals – and their devotion was royally rewarded.
The opening raised the roof: “Hello” remixed as undulating electronica that morphed into a rave anthem, complete with klaxon. So much for slushiness. Richie then appeared, clad in black and sporting a gold crucifix, to kick off the cruise-ship disco of “All Around the World”, a fitting party starter. “Penny Lover” developed an unctuous groove, punctuated by the first of several Stevie Wonder-ish harmonica breaks from the band’s beanie-hatted virtuoso. He also played sax.
Richie, a lithe 63, addressed us like a fly pastor – or whatever the American equivalent of a trendy vicar might be – effortlessly coaxing communal feeling. “Here we are again, celebrating life,” he declared warmly. “Easy” revelled in gospel roots, though “Ballerina Girl” remains irredeemably drippy. The piano ballads “Still”, “Truly” and “Stuck on You” were packaged as a case history of “our trials and tribulations”, the singer archly slipping into relationship-counsellor mode (“The unthinkable happens: you see your spouse with another person. Enter Lionel Richie!”), acknowledging the sentimentality while having a good wallow.
“Dancing on the Ceiling”, the most uptempo track, seemed on a journey (pun intended) to a “Don’t Stop Believin’”-type, pop-metal second life; Commodores-era funk such as “Brick House” had an age-appropriate workout. Guest spots from Pixie Lott (“Angel”) and Rebecca Ferguson (“Endless Love”) were the only real lows. These British sirens have but one, tiresome means of emoting: turn the volume up. Richie was more subtle. “Hello”, at last gifted to the audience, was sung with a gratitude that almost, almost banished years of dodgy covers and cheesy reminiscence.
To finish, the wedding salsa of “All Night Long” interpolated a parody of Psy’s “Gangnam Style”. Priceless. Richie had promised the “best time ever, ever, ever”. Well, it was certainly miles better than anticipated.