Entering Sunday night’s show at Deer Valley, music lovers knew they were going to be treated to some of the finest American music ever created, but the form of the performance remained a mystery.
That was because this appearance in Park City by Darlene Love and Muscle Shoals Live wasn’t just another stop on a cross-country tour for the musicians on stage. It was a special one-off collaboration by musicians featured in two documentary films that premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Topping the bill was Darlene Love, one of the featured artists in Twenty Feet from Stardom, and opening up and acting as Love’s band was a slew of musicians from Muscle Shoals, the doc about the legendary Alabama music studio where blues, rock and soul artists created some of the biggest hits of the American music canon.
The Muscle Shoals crew took the stage first, and it was a massive collection of musicians including four horns, four backup singers, two percussionists, two keyboardists, guitar, bass and a rotating cast of singers that included originators of some of the old hits, and young powerhouses reinterpreting old classics.
Their set was a loosely chronological run-through of some of the best songs ever recorded at Muscle Shoals, starting with the first No. 1 hit ever recorded there, the Staple Singers “I’ll Take You There,” and then moving through “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Patches” and “Land of 1,000 Dances,” the old staple that got the disappointingly small crowd on its feet and dancing. Singer Mike Farris killed his take on Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,”
Candy Staton took the stage by announcing, “This is every artist’s dream, to take this band on the road,” and it was easy to hear what she meant in the soulful grooves and funky horn blasts dotting the band’s set. Even Staton’s disco hit, “Young Hearts Run Free,” came through with genuine feeling, and the crowd certainly ate it up.
Aretha Franklin’s Muscle Shoals recordings were prominent in the set as well, from “Chain of Fools” to “Respect” to “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” “Mustang Sally” was a fun blast from the past, and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” was an appropriate, if somewhat out of place, finale.
Love took the stage with the Muscle Shoals crew backing her up, proving an incredibly gracious frontwoman in thanking the audience for her 50-year career in the business. Then she showcased her still-incredible pipes through a set that touched on her old Crystals and early solo classics recorded with Phil Spector, to more modern fare, and genre excursions like a gospel tune, or a little blues.
Old classics “Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” came early on, and then she launched into a medley of covers including “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that showcased Love and the band to great effect.
Truth be told, Love’s set had a harder time keeping up momentum the same way the Muscle Shoals run of all-time classics did, but that might be an unfair comparison since Love is still a regularly touring artist and the Muscle Shoals crew doesn’t get to play together as often. And there was no denying the power of Love taking on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” or Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” For my money, though, the best of Love came through the oldest songs in the set, like “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “A Fine, Fine Boy.”
Small quibbles aside, the night was almost pure pleasure, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see what some of the best musicians ever can do decades after they made their names. Kudos to the concert organizers, and even more so to the musicians who have given so much to music fans through the years.