BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
About halfway through her 100-minute concert Sunday night, Olivia Newton-John was wrapping a sassy version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and nailed it with a glass-cracking final note.
When she finally let out a breath, she glanced at her band with wide eyes and a smile, seemingly surprised at just how long she held the note.
It was one of many highlights during the singer’s performance at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, her first Atlanta appearance since 2009 and one that attracted a nearly sold-out crowd that included many of her personal friends, as well as country singer Patty Loveless.
Newton-John also provided an impromptu moment when she invited her husband, “Amazon” John Easterling, on stage for an early birthday present – a sweet version of “The Girl from Ipanema,” recast as “The Boy from North Carolina,” which she said she last sang for him at their wedding in 2008.
Though Newton-John’s voice sounded a bit husky and cautious on the show-opening “Magic,” it was obviously her warm-up-the-vocals moment, because the rest of her set soared.
Wearing a black pants outfit bedecked with fringe and sparkles, Newton-John, 68, warmly engaged with her adoring fans in between her musical memories stroll.
Her duet with backup singer Steve Real on “Suddenly” rendered the song as swoon-worthy as the Cliff Richard original, while the powerhouse chorus of “Twist of Fate” and chugga-chugga beat of “Physical” prompted the audience to sing and clap along.
Noting how “Physical”’s leg warmer innuendo caused many radio stations to ban it in 1981, Newton-John scoffed that compared to current radio selections, “I think it’s more like a lullaby!”
Indeed, there is a pristine sheen that coats the singer’s immense catalog. Even when she was coy and flirty, an essence of innocence always toppled any impure insinuations.
And just as Carrie Fisher will forever be entwined with the legend of Princess Leia, Newton-John will always be our Sandy Olsson.
She is well aware of the connection, and even though her set featured lovely nods to her love of animals and the environment (“The Promise [The Dolphin Song]” and Don’t Cut Me Down”), a rhythmic celebration of life (“Not Gonna Give Into It”) and an acoustic segment focusing on her early country hits (“Please Mr. Please,” “Let Me Be There”), Newton-John knows fans want to re-live that glorious “Grease” soundtrack.
Amusingly, “You’re The One That I Want” was introduced by video clips showcasing the various cover versions of the song – from metal bands to cartoon cats – and included some of the iconic dance moves from the movie.
Newton-John draped her honeyed voice all over “Hopelessly Devoted to You” as she stood bathed in lavender lighting, then she and her backup singers engaged in a cute boy vs. girl singalong to “Summer Nights” and the tongue-twisting fun of “We Go Together.”
After a brief exit from the stage, Newton-John returned in a black gown and shared with the audience, “I’m very grateful for many things…that I’m still singing and you’re still coming to see me.”
She briefly halted her performance of the title track to her 2006 album, “Grace and Gratitude,” to take a sip of water and start from the top – “I had an Adele moment!” she quipped – and ended the show with, fittingly, “I Honestly Love You.”
But since these fans were exceptionally vocal about an encore, Newton-John and her pianist/musical director Dane Bryant returned for a simple, stunning version of “Over the Rainbow” – the ideal capper from one of music’s enduring sweethearts.