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Music Review

Still rockin' around

By James Reed
Globe Staff / December 23, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Twenty years ago, Ronnie Spector started a holiday tradition that still goes down like a bowl of spiked eggnog. The annual "Ronnie Spector's Christmas Party" is a seasonal staple at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York, and she now takes the show on the road, including a stop at Showcase Live Saturday night.

"I have a cramp in my leg," she said right after opening with "Sleigh Ride." "So if you see me sitting tonight, that's why. But I won't be sitting for long."

For no apparent reason, she said that last part with a sly grin, a little giggle, and a few thrusts of her pelvis, the first of the evening's many suggestive moments. The former Ronettes leader let it be known that, at 65, with a formidable nest of brown hair intact (a heated debate arose at my table: Is that a wig?), she's as feisty as ever. She was constantly tugging at her waistband, all the better to show off her rather petite figure.

Spector hasn't made many solo records since the Ronettes' 1960s heyday, and oddly, it's rare to find the seminal group's albums in stores these days (even iTunes has only a few songs). But her stature among a certain generation of rock musicians is legendary; they see her as a true rock 'n' roll survivor, a muse. "This is a song Billy Joel wrote for me," she said as she introduced "Say Goodbye to Hollywood."

Her backing band was solid, even if its enthusiasm was hardly contagious, and Spector worked hard to muster some yuletide cheer, at one point donning a feathery Santa Claus outfit. Pitch was not always on Spector's side - her voice, while strong, now trails off into a weathered vibrato that really warbles at the end of notes - but in or out of tune, Spector had the right spirit for the material.

Befitting a Christmas show, she hammed her way through the usual suspects ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Frosty the Snowman") and relished a trove of oldies but goodies: "Be My Baby," "Baby, I Love You," "Walking in the Rain," "I Can Hear Music," and a few doo-wop hits by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers.

Spector could sing those classics in her sleep, so it was heartening to see her fully engaged and invested in other songs that seem to speak to her. She tapped a bone-deep sadness in "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," a Johnny Thunders song from 1978 whose poignant message still resonates.

And Spector's legacy came full circle when she recalled that Amy Winehouse once said she wanted to be like Spector, which flattered but also befuddled the icon. "No, you don't," Spector said. "I never did drugs back then. But I do love her voice." She then dug into Winehouse's haunting "Back to Black," a colossal ballad that completely suited Spector and suggested the torch had been passed from one bad girl to the next.

RONNIE SPECTOR At: Showcase Live, Saturday

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