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Concert Reviews:
Allee Willis gives, gets Detroit love at the City Theatre
 

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffnMusic on Twit

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DETROIT -- “My lack of formal training permeates my whole career,” Allee Willis said early during her “Allee Willis Loves Detroit” show on Friday night, May 19, at the City Theatre.

She is, then, an embodiment of the virtues of doing things on the fly.

Detroit native and proud Mumford High School grad Willis, 70, is an award-winning songwriter -- headed into the Songwriters Hall of Fame next month -- who’s also carved out niches as an art and kitsch collector, avant garde furniture maker and party thrower. She touched on all of this during the hour-and-45-minute show, the first of two at the City Theatre, offering a fast-moving, entertaining and often funny revue that provided plenty of insight and skewered a few sacred cows along the way.

Inhabiting stage decked out with balloons, tinsel, candy and some of her own cartoon-like drawings, Willis was assisted by three others -- including musical collaborator Andre Armstrong, who played keyboards and triggered the “Friends” theme “I’ll Be There For You,” which Willis co-wrote, every time she uttered the word “friend,” to Willis’ feigned or real exasperation. She also held a mid-show auction of several of her kitsch wares -- including a disco lunch pail and thermos and an automated James Brown figurine -- which went a bit too long though a guest appearance by “Hardcore Pawn’s” Les Gold spiced up that segment.

Willis led singalongs to a few of her songs, including her Detroit anthem “The D,” but her stories were the show’s real drawing card. There were personal remembrances of spending teenage afternoons sitting on the lawn outside Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters, and of her scrap yard operator father’s admonition for to “stay away from black culture;” Ultimate revenge, she noted, as writing for the stage musical adaptation of “The Color Purple.” She recanted watching Sammy Davis Jr. pull a stuck rib bone out of Elizabeth Taylor’s throat during a barbeque at his house and of a recording session and sushi dinner gone wrong with Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Phoebe Snow. Willis also gave in-depth accounts of writing hits such as the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” -- as well as its inclusion in fellow Mumford alumnus Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Beverly Hills Cop” -- “I’ll Be There For You,” Patti Labelle’s “Stir It Up” and Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.”

The latter gave Willis an opportunity to address Taylor Swift’s recent, much-maligned cover of the song, released online last month. Willis said that the caustic reaction to the song was a bit overwrought -- “I didn’t really think she did a horrible job...I mean, the girl didn’t kill anybody...” -- but made it abundantly clear that she’s not a fan of the version, either, calling it “as lethargic as a drunk turtle dozing under a sunflower after ingesting a bottle of Valium...a very calm and somewhat boring take of one of the peppiest, happiest, most popular songs in history.”

The show was ultimately a testimonial to making a lot out of a little -- at least as far as training goes -- and an enjoyable immersion into Willis’ high-octane character. She made it clear she really does love Detroit, and she gave Detroit plenty of reason to love her back.

Willis performs again at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, City Theatre in Hockeytown Cafe, 2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $45. Call 313-471-3400 or visit 313Presents.com.

Web Site: www.313Presents.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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