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Peabo Bryson LIVE! at SOPAC

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

The sold-out crowd inside the South Orange Performing Arts Center auditorium in South Orange, NJ, this Saturday, September 10, 2022 evening is ready and waiting to experience a live performance by the talented singer/songwriter Peabo Bryson.

Robert Peapo Bryson was born in Greenville, South Carolina. As a child, his love of music was fostered by his mother who took him to see concerts by such artists as Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Billie Holiday. Bryson started singing professionally at the age of 14 for a local band, Al Freeman and the Upsetters. After Freeman had difficultly pronouncing Peapo, Bryson’s French West-Indian name, Bryson spent the rest of his career performing as Peabo.

Following regional success for his 1977 debut album, Peabo, Bryson was signed to Capitol Records, but it was the two songs he recorded for Disney films that earned him his two Grammy Awards — “Beauty and the Beast” with Celine Dion in 1991, and “A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme)” with Regina Belle in 1992. Bryson’s latest album is his 2018 recording, Stand for Love.

Inside SOPAC’s sleek and inviting auditorium, musicians — including keyboardists Brian Williams and Diana Dentino, drummer Brandon McCrae, saxophonist/vocalist Leonard Julien, vocalist Tracy Hamlin, and musical director/bassist/vocalist Dwight Watkins — take the stage. The lights dim and McCrae’s drums kick in before Watkins announces, “Peabo Bryson!”

Audience members stand for Peabo as he takes the stage and exclaims, “Good evening!” prior to launching into his interpretation of Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell.”

Singing, “Oh, show and tell/Just a game I play/When I want to say/I love you,” Bryson’s smooth and powerful voice fills the theater with feel-good vibes as he’s accompanied by tight three-part backup vocals before being followed by a Leonard Julien saxophone solo.

The crowd whistles and cheers and Peabo announces, “Let’s go back in time!” Here, he and the band sail into “Crosswinds,” an upbeat R&B number which features Brian Williams and Diana Dentino on swirling keyboards.

“We’re gonna have some fun tonight!” declares Bryson as he performs an extended medley of “Reaching for the Sky,” “Impossible,” and “Missing You,” singing with emotion and eliciting hoots and hollers from music lovers in the house who hang on his every word.

A highlight of Bryson’s set is his rendition of his 1984 Top 10 hit, “If Ever You’re in my Arms Again.” The song’s funky groove has audience members dancing to the beat as Peabo croons, “If ever you’re in my arms again/This time I’ll love you much better,” looking dapper in his red glasses and red brocade jacket with red pocket square.

Announcing, “Can somebody make some noise?” Peabo and Co. launch into his 1991 R&B ballad, “Can You Stop the Rain.” Backup vocals surround Bryson’s voice, and Dwight Watkins plays keyboard bass as he deftly conducts the top-notch band which sounds more like a small orchestra.

Concertgoers cheer and Bryson says, “Thank you so very kindly! Everybody stand up! Let’s get funky!” Lights dance with the moving crowd on Bryson’s interpretation of Chaka Kahn and Rufus’ funky hit, “Ain’t Nobody,” which brings enthusiastic cheers at the end.

Bryson straps on an acoustic guitar, explaining, “Into each life some rain must fall. If you can keep your calm, God still favors you,” before serenading the audience with power on his R&B ballad, “King of Sorrow.” Channeling George Benson, Bryson scat sings a melody which he simultaneously plays on guitar before Watkins picks up the speed and the arrangement switches into a Latin feel where Bryson and Watkins duel on guitar and bass. After Watkins scat sings in synchronous harmony with his own bass line — slapping and bending his instrument’s strings — the crowd cheers while Peabo jokes, “Now you’re just showing off!”

Reminding the audience about all the talented musicians we’ve lost in recent years, Bryson performs a musical tribute to some of his favorite recording artists. To acknowledge singer James Ingram, Peabo skillfully employs his falsetto voice on “Find 100 Ways” and he and Tracy Hamlin croon together on the power duet, “Baby, Come to Me.”

Following his rendition of Roy Oviedo’s “Sweet Summer Days,” Bryson pays tribute to Grover Washington, Jr. with his rendition of “Just the Two of Us.”

The audience sings along on the catchy “Just the two of us/We can make it if we try” refrain before Bryson scat sings up, down, and around Leonard Julien’s smooth saxophone playing.

Bryson salutes singer Al Jarreau with a bouncy rendition of “We’re in This Love Together,” and acknowledges the talents of Donny Hathaway as he and Hamlin perform Hathaway’s popular duet with Roberta Flack, “Where is the Love.”

Another highlight of Bryson’s set is his and Hamlin’s performance of Peabo and Roberta Flack’s 1983 hit, “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.” Singing to one another, “What I want most to do/Is to get close to you,” the duo’s voices soar out over the crowd leading the audience to respond with animated cheers and applause.

For his final tribute, Bryson performs a salute to Natalie Cole where he and Hamlin sing free and effortlessly on the simmering R&B number, “What You Won’t Do For Love.” At the conclusion, a fan shouts out, “Love you, Peabo!” and Bryson responds, “I love you back!” prior to joking, “Don’t get me in trouble! My cousins are here watching me tonight!”

Bryson starts to wind down the evening with a selection of three ballads including the R&B power ballad “I’m So Into You,” the showy “Let the Feeling Flow,” and the rhythmic “Feel the Fire,” where, mid-song, he introduces his band members before impressing the audience with his stunning falsetto voice. After Peabo announces, “We’ve got to leave this thing on a high note! Everybody stand up, hands together!” the crowd happily obliges, standing and clapping, as Peabo and Co. perform the ultra-funky “All She Wants to Do is Me.”

As the band continues to vamp, to conclude his set, Peabo hands out red roses to audience members prior to flashing a peace sign and bowing to the standing and cheering crowd.

As concertgoers make their way out of the auditorium, we chat with several in the audience who share their thoughts on Peabo Bryon’s performance tonight. Exclaims Roberta from Clifton, “Peabo Bryson was wonderful! He’s a top-notch musician and he’s so personable, I actually feel like he’s a good friend.” Val from Bloomfield — who is holding a rose she just received from Peabo — agrees, adding, “He is so classy and his music is just timeless!”

Charlotte from Maplewood asserts, “It was such a fun performance! Peabo has such a great voice.” Lauren from Metuchen concurs, acknowledging, “He put on such a great show! I love his voice — it’s so strong.” and Debra from South Orange contends, “It was simply wonderful — a beautiful concert,” before revealing, “He sang my favorite song, ‘Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,’ which was just magnificent!”

Lastly, we chat with Rosie from East Hanover who insists, “Peabo was just wonderful tonight! I enjoyed his show so much! It was very interactive, and his voice is like butter,” before declaring, “I’d stay to see it all over again!”

To learn more about Peabo Bryson, please go to peabobryson2.com. For information on future concerts at SOPAC — including Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn on October 26, Jim Messina on November 3, Valerie Simpson on November 11, and Judy Collins on December 2 — please click on sopacnow.org.

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