“Tonight, you are in our living room,” Smokey Robinson told the sold-out Wilbur crowd not long into his performance Wednesday night. “You have come to visit.” The show was titled “Smokey Robinson: Up Close And Personal,” and the Motown legend seemed to take that billing seriously. The concert was about as intimate as a packed theatre would allow.
There was the band, for starters. It was actually reasonably stripped down; with a lineup of guitar, bass, drums, piano, and saxophone, there were no unnecessary instruments and only one of each.
And with rare exceptions — like a run through “The Tears of a Clown” that attempted to mimic the ornate production of the original single and ended up sounding canned as a result — musical director Demetrios Pappas focused on piano instead of keyboards. The music was sharp but not overburdened.
Adding to the casual vibe was Robinson’s organizing principle for the evening: He had none.
Instead, he let audience members ask questions and request songs. It was a fairly daring gambit, running the risk of front-loading the show with his big, crowd-pleasing hits and then tapering off toward the end.
And in fact, the slow, jazzy soul of the Gershwins’ “Love Is Here to Stay” and the extremely low-grade funk of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” felt like the sorts of songs that would have been tucked in the middle of a judiciously planned set list, not left toward the end.
But Robinson was so loose and game that even those borderline duds were few and far between. “Ooo Baby Baby” came early, a full-bore test of his quavery falsetto that he passed easily. For “Bad Girl,” he joked that he had to do the entire Miracles routine by himself, and he gleefully jumped in and out of choreography and doo-wop vocal flourishes.
And when the audience asked for songs the band didn’t know, Robinson did his best to please the crowd. For “Tell Me Tomorrow,” that meant an unaccompanied snippet of a song that he admitted he barely remembered himself. But “What’s So Good About Goodbye” captured the singer at his best. Singing a cappella up to the balcony whence the request came, Robinson not only sounded great but was utterly magnetic.
At: Wilbur Theatre, Wednesday