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Chance the Rapper review: a spiritual vibe for Special Olympics anniversary show

Chicago Tribune - 7/22/2018

July 22--Chance the Rapper finished a long night of music Saturday with a question. "Are you ready for your blessings?" he cried, and the packed house at Northerly Island mirrored his upraised arms.

It was the triumphant capper to a more than six-hour concert by a multi-generational lineup that included Smokey Robinson and Usher to mark the Special Olympics 50th anniversary. There were also between-set appearances by Olympic athletes Michelle Kwan and Michael Phelps, new Chicago Bulls acquisition Jabari Parker, and a previously unannounced mini-set by R&B singer Carl Thomas.

The Special Olympics debuted at Soldier Field in 1968 and has grown into an international phenomenon ever since in support of the intellectually disabled. The family of the organization's founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was on hand to introduce the 25-year-old headliner from the South Side.

With a multiracial band, the Social Experiment, and a history of community-building in the way he pieces together music or engages in civic activism, Chance has long mirrored the night's theme of inclusiveness. His set list emphasized the spirituality that underlines much of his music.

"Everybody's somebody's everything," he sang at the outset, punctuated by unison hand waving and Nico Segal's dancing trumpet line. Though Chance released a quartet of new songs a few days before the show, he performed only one, the optimistic "Work Out," while bypassing the caustic "I Might Need Security." It added up to a crisply paced hour of exuberance.

Chance also appeared on stage earlier in the evening to pop some moves alongside Francis Farewell Starlite, aka Francis and the Lights, on "May I have This Dance." Francis performed most of his set silhouetted against a white screen, with the reverb cranked on his vocals, bringing an alien touch to his R&B longing. He also crossed some kind of musical Rubicon by dredging up Huey Lewis' "Power of Love" from its '80s resting place.

Smokey Robinson, still suave if raspier of voice, made the most of his 15 minutes on stage. He brought a white-suited six piece band and three backing singers, and quickly surveyed his decades-long career with gems such as "Being With You," "I Second that Emotion" and "Just to See Her." But it was with his Motown classic "The Tracks of my Tears" that let Robinson put an indelible mark on the concert. Rather than a perfunctory run-through that mimicked the original recording, which no doubt would have pleased the fans eager to sing along, Robinson started quietly, accompanied only by an electric guitar. He let the words burn in softly, deeply, as he built almost imperceptibly to the final, devastating unmasking: "My smile is my makeup I wear since my breakup with you." It was a tour de force by a master singer reclaiming and reinventing the standard he had written a half-century ago.

If Robinson was all about the voice, Usher was all about the motion -- and the commotion it caused. He remains a devastating dancer as he pranced through two decades of hits with gliding hips and sensual turns of the shoulders and wrists. Yet just as eloquent as this supremely physical performance were Usher's words, which served as a powerful summing up of what brought everyone to Northerly Island on this night: performers, organizers, parents and guardians, and a legion of Special Olympics athletes alike.

As the singer said, there is genius in everyone, it only requires care to allow it to emerge. "The only disability is the inability to love."

Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.

greg@gregkot.com

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