Toot Toot, Hey, Beep Beep

Disco diva Donna Summer returns to the stage and record racks 17 years later with ‘Crayons.’

Summer 2008 or 1978?
Summer 2008 or 1978?

“There would be no diva without you,” announced Donna Summer Saturday night at the gorgeous, landmark, Paramount Theatre in the heart of downtown Oakland, California.

Up went a high-pitched scream. All men. The self-proclaimed “little black girl from Boston” may have been born again at the height of her fame in 1979, but her audience can still practically bitch-slap a poor woman security drone acting as back-up on a no-pictures melee. Bad, bad girls.

Summer’s first new album in 17 years, Crayons (Sony), has prompted the 59-year-old singer-songwriter out from her home in what she admitted calling “God’s little waiting room,” Florida. The hip-hop braggadocio branding one centerpiece on the new disc, off which Summer performed nine of 12 songs, also hinted at the evening’s dogged determination to spotlight new material: show opener “The Queen is Back.” This would be no oldies revival night. On CD, Crayons' greatest hits* can’t possibly “Dim All the Lights,” but live, “Stamp Your Feet,” “Mr. Music,” and the tropical new title track work hard for the money… so hard for it honey.

A 10-piece backing band with a trio of dancers for every occasion (drum majors, street hustlers, football players) did most of the work through the first half of the first set, until the guitarist went acoustic and Summer’s gospel training could be heard blowing through “Sand on My Feet.” Back in the day, the commercial success of Summer’s radio and dance floor smashes, like this tour stop’s succeeding “On the Radio,” made their rockist hearts immediately irrelevant and basically did the same for the singer’s voice, every bit as milky as Dionne Warwick and as Motown as Martha Reeves. Besides marrying a German named Sommer, the former LaDonna Andrea Gaines also wrote or co-wrote almost all her material. Diva did it her way, nothing left to prove except maybe reiterating to modern audiences that disco was always a subset of R&B and soul.

“No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” sadly but naturally sans Barbra Streisand, and “MacArthur Park” bought the second set to its feet instantly, but the Old South stage dressing for “Slide Over Backwards” teased an alternate reality wherein Summer had taken a path down Etta James instead of Giorgio Moroder. “Bad Girls” toot-tooting and, hey, beep-beeping straight into a metallic version of “Hot Girls” proved Stairway to Hell scribe Chuck Eddy’s infamous disco-metal fusion theory in one screaming, Eddie Van Halen, “Beat It”-type guitar solo. Newbie thumper “Fame (the Game)” rammed the same point home. Closer “Last Dance” emptied the hall faster than a sweaty 8th grade gymnasium.

Set List 8•16•08

The Queen is Back* Dim All the Lights I Feel Love I’m a Fire* Sand on My Feet* On the Radio Mr. Music* Crayons*

No More Tears (Enough is Enough) MacArthur Park Bring Down the Reign* Stamp Your Feet* Slide Over Backwards* She Works Hard for the Money Bad Girls Hot Stuff Fame (the Game)* Last Dance

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