Thursday, June 14, 2012

Donna Summer: August 30, 2008

Ravinia is a scenic outdoor venue north of Chicago where the elaborate picnics of those with lawn seats are just as much of an attraction as the artist who happens to be playing. In fact, from most spots on the lawn the picnickers are all you see, as the stage is completely out of view. Usually my friends and I will  retreat to an area behind the pavilion briefly so that we can at least catch a glimpse of the performers. The lawn is a lovely sight, though, where far from "roughing it," people bring tablecloths, candelabras, real silverware and wine glasses, and elaborate foods. Behind the genteel facade, however, tensions are sometimes ready to bubble over. Maybe it's because of the venue's negative aspects: The lawn is oversold and overcrowded; because of the obstructed view, the lawn sometimes attracts partiers rather than people there to see the bands; the Metra trains that many patrons use to get home are overcrowded and prone to delays; people get really drunk.

On the way home from this show we were trapped on the top level of a very crowded Metra train with a few dozen boozy fifty-something women. Frankly, they scared me a little. Still slamming down vodka on the train, they apparently weren't the only ones at the show to get a little rowdy. The next day a news story appeared saying that two parties of picnickers had gotten into fisticuffs when one tried to steal the other's picnic space. It's not everyday you see the headline "Brawl At Ravinia" on the Huffington Post, but it is everyday (at least in the summer) that you can see patrons scrambling to claim space on the Ravinia lawn.

But when, you may ask, are you actually going to talk about Donna Summer? Well, I figure a description of the patrons is valid since it's a big part of the concert-going experience, and in the case of a show from the Ravinia lawn, the patrons are pretty much the main attraction. As for La Donna, she was touring in support of what turned out to be her final studio album, Crayons. She performed some songs from it along with other "newer" (i.e. not disco) songs and the material went over well since it was mostly upbeat and danceable -- just what the crowd wanted. She also sang many of her big hits from the '70s and '80s including "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls, "Last Dance," and "She Works Hard for the Money." She looked great decked out in an evening gown (we ventured down to the "holding pen" for a peek) and her voice was just as smooth and powerful as ever.

Hearing the quality of Summer's vocals, it was like time had stood still. Seeing the middle-aged crowd freak out whenever she launched into another disco hit, however, it was clear just how much time had passed. Ravinia was a long way from Studio 54, but you could see some of the audience going back in time, if only in their minds, if only for a few minutes. Maybe it is only because of nostalgia, but disco has withstood the test of time. And Summer, as the queen of the genre, has too. When she passed away in May 2012, it was clear from the many tributes to her in the media and on the web that she had earned the respect that was denied for too many years to artists slapped with the "disco" label.

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