RICHMOND — I’m 30, so I’m old/young enough to remember when Michael Bolton’s soft-rock ballads of the late 80s/early 90s dominated the radio. That husky and raspy voice was always distinguishable.
As much as I considered his music only stuff my mom would listen to — especially after I started listening to punk rock in high school — that didn’t mean I never stopped what I was doing, turned the radio up, and fist pumped through my own rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman” (I ain’t gonna lie).
When Bolton came to the EKU Center for the Arts Tuesday night, he didn’t disappoint his long-time fans.
He introduced a mix of some of his work with “vintage” songs like “Georgia on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me.” But, he also made sure to give us plenty of those 90s songs you love to sing in the shower, including his Grammy award-winning “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” reminding us why women continue to line up in front of the stage with outstretched hands.
After the first few songs, Bolton takes off his jacket and the crowd responds with, well, the kind of hoopin’ and hollerin’ that goes on when anyone starts to take off their clothes.
“It’s not that kind of show,” he joked. “I’m just playing my guitar.”
Register photographer, Kaitlin Keane, turns to me and said, “This guy is pretty funny.”
Being almost a decade younger than me, Kaitlin had to create a Spotify music gallery of Bolton’s greatest hits to prepare for the concert.
When we got to the Center, she and I were a little concerned about permission to take photos, but Bolton gave us permission himself.
“We encourage you to take all the pictures you care to take — cell phones, cameras, or whatever method you have. Just get me in the good light,” he said to the audience. “Feel free to touch them up in Photoshop.”
No matter what you think about Bolton and his music, his voice was the same as ever, and sounded as if you were listening to a studio recording. As he belted out his lyrics, Bolton took the squinty-eyed, white-knuckled power stance — the kind of stance you take when singing any early 90s soft-rock ballad.
To my surprise, he played a mean guitar while he sang Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” I guess I had never pictured him with a guitar; I was impressed. He is obviously a polished performer and musician, not just some love-song crooner.
In fact, Bolton’s earliest influences were soul and rhythm and blues greats like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. By the time he was a teenager, he was into rock ‘n roll and heavy metal.
In the 1970s, he was lead singer for the heavy-metal band Blackjack, which once toured with Ozzy Osbourne, according to a TV Guide biography.
When his band dissolved in the late 70s, he turned to songwriting to support his three daughters.
A turning point in his career came when his song, “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” was performed by songstress Laura Branigan and it skyrocketed to the top of adult contemporary charts in 1983. “It stopped my rent checks from bouncing,” Bolton joked Tuesday.
Six years later, his rendition of the same song earned him a Grammy award.
“I was an 18-year overnight success story,” Bolton said of his music career before he made it big.
Joining him on stage was a pianist, drummer, bassist, guitarist, and a female back-up singer who also was a brilliant trumpeter.
Jazz saxophonist Michael Lington accompanied many of the songs, a signature sound in Bolton’s most famous tracks. It didn’t matter that we weren’t in the 1990s anymore, the sound of the saxophone always takes me back there (and makes me want to light some candles and pour some wine).
Later in the set, singer/songwriter Kelly Levesque joined him for a few duets, including one of my favorites “Make You Feel My Love.” I first heard this song in the 1998 film Hope Floats (you know, the one with Sandra Bullock). I knew Garth Brooks, Adele, Kelly Clarkson and Billy Joel had all covered it, but Bob Dylan wrote the song, Bolton said.
The song is a track on Bolton’s 21st studio album “Gems – The Duets Collection” released in June 2011. The album features productions by acclaimed musicians, producers and songwriters and includes popular songs such as “Fields of Gold,” “Over The Rainbow” and “Hallelujah.”
However, I’m inclined to say some of his best recent work was on the track “Jack Sparrow” by The Lonely Island — the Emmy-winning, Grammy-nominated comedic trio comprised of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, made famous by their work on Saturday Night Live. The track has almost 95 million views on YouTube since its release in 2011.
At the beginning of the music video, Bolton tells the trio that he just finished watching The Pirates of the Caribbean movie series and “I wrote you this big sexy hook I think you’re going to really dig.”
As the boys of The Lonely Island start laying down a hot beat and some mad lyrical flow, Bolton busts in with a few signature 90s-era “yeah, yeahs” and vocal riffs.
The video cuts to Bolton parodying himself by singing on the beach with a few undone buttons on his shirt just like in his video for the 1993 hit single “Said I Love You … But I Lied.”
The only thing missing from his cheesy romance-novel-cover persona were those long luscious locks of brown, curly hair blowing in the wind. Stirring much unexpected controversy, Bolton chopped off his famous mane/mullet in 1997.
In fact, when you Google “mullet,” Bolton’s picture is among the mullet greats such as Billy Ray Cyrus, A.C. Slater from “Save By The Bell” and Joe Dirt.
Although in “Jack Sparrow,” Bolton seemed to embrace his label as “the quintessential sensitive and sexy balladeer,” there was a time when critics got to him (haters gotta hate!).
In a 1993 interview in Us magazine, Bolton said that the change from rhythm and blues to emotional love songs represented a “big crisis” for him.
“You lose a great deal of the male support that would be there and respect you for your voice, but who can’t deal with the subject matter,” he said. “So you lose your male audience and you incur the wrath of the critics.”
But for some of us, those emotional love songs are the reason he and his majestic mullet will forever be in our memories.
R.I.P Michael Bolton’s mullet, 1954 – 1997.