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BENT NIGHTS Linda Clifford; Seal
by Vern Hester

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I'll never forget the first time I saw Linda Clifford. It was 1977 and my closeted eyes were planted on the old Midnight Special rock concert that, for this episode, was aiming at "edgy" by spotlighting disco as the latest thing. The sight of David Hodo and Glenn Hughes gyrating and pawing all over their half-naked selves certainly made an impression, but Clifford was the one that stuck.

The Village People may have stormed the nation just after that with "Macho Man," but Clifford clearly defied them and disco with her talent. When that group and the genre that spawned it became suddenly unfashionable while inciting a racist and homophobic backlash, Clifford kept right on going. On that first viewing, Clifford ripped through her version of the showtune, "If My Friends Could See Me Now," and revealed something that was not obvious. What set her apart from many of disco's one-hit wonders was that she did what not even Gwen Verdon or Shirley MacLaine could do with the song—make the listener a part of the scenario.

"If My Friends Could See Me Now" was, of course, a huge smash, and she had other dance-floor hits, but the impression I got was that her gifts were larger than something as formulaic as disco. On Aug. 27 in a benefit performance at Unity Church, she certainly proved me right.

Good-naturedly meeting her fans and offering all kinds of nifty surprises ( The Linda Clifford Chocolate Bar came in raspberry and sea salt or caramel and almond ) and fronting a crack band, she tore through a greatest-hits set that focused on disco covers. And that was the surprise in itself: Who cares if they weren't her hits? By taking them on, she showed what separated her from the pack. Her opener, The Tramps' antiquated dance floor anthem "Disco Inferno," came with gritty sass and the song was something that the original was not: a bona fide jam. In her hands, "I Will Survive" was less a statement of self-growth and fortitude but more of a battle cry. The topper for this segment was a tip of the hat to the late Vicki Sue Robinson with a stunning and joyous "I've Got the Music In Me."

Still the best was yet to come. Taking back the ballad "All the Man That I Need"—which was originally written about her and her husband, Nick Coconato—she had the chance to open and put the song across with her powerful voice and articulate phrasing. As a finish, she closed with her own disco stompers "Red Light," "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and an hilarious take on "Runaway Love." ( During the close of the last song, Clifford kept dropping the name "Tyrone"—a clear reference to Erykah Badu's errant boyfriend ).

By contrast, while Linda Clifford was shaking it in a church, Seal's Aug. 29 show at Ravinia predictably came draped in solemnity. When "Kiss from A Rose" broke out as the surprise summer hit of 1995, it presented him as a highly literate balladeer with a social conscience. A good 21 years down the line, he certainly hasn't evolved into a Sting for the new century and he or anything else that he has produced has not strayed from the initial first impression. This is not to say Seal or his show was a bore—in fact, it was far from it. The correct word for the first half of the show is actually "predictable."

"Predictable," in this context, is not a bad thing since Seal opened the set with the new "Let Yourself" and "Daylight Saving." The first glimmer of what was to come was the heartbreaking and dramatic "Do You Ever," which was clearly inspired by his break with Heidi Klum. After an impromptu stroll into the audience ( he completely freaked out a 9-year-old who confessed that his parents dragged him to the show ), he dedicated "Prayer for the Dying" to all the victims and mourners the world over who have suffered loss.

If all of that was engaging but intense, the second half of the show reached for heights of giddy ass-shaking. After a lilting and concise reading of Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile" ( believe it or not, an improvement over the original ), he appropriately tackled Tears for Fears "Mad World" and gave a spooky acoustic reading of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Then he got goofy and let his hips do the talking—and not a moment too soon.

"The Right Life" sampled Chic's Le Freak ( the effect was like joyously getting hammered after drinking a glass of grain alcohol on an empty stomach ) and then, amidst all the booty-shaking and hand-clapping, he ripped through Prince's "Hot Thing," which, given the lyrical content, played out hilariously in staid Highland Park. "Life On the Dance Floor" saw him run back out in the audience for an extended jam and an exuberant melee before finishing with the expected "Kiss from A Rose" and "Crazy." Hmmmph, let's see Sting do that.

Heads up: Get your tickets early. Queer personality Seth Bogart hits The Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., on Saturday, Sept. 24, with Imp Queen, Dorian Electra and Max Goldstein of Yoko and the Oh No's.

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