Don’t count me as one of those snooty critics who can barely conceal his contempt for Tampa Bay as some kind of cultural wasteland. I’ve been to New York City and I’ve been to Cookeville, Tenn., and Tampa Bay is much closer to the former. That said — man, Tampa Bay concert audiences can really act like a bunch of rubes.
It happened (again) Sunday night during the Roberta Flack show at the Mahaffey Theater. The 74-year-old singer/pianist was in a chatty mood, and that apparently gave certain crowd members license to engage in conversation. The nadir came after Flack playfully pimped her new album of Beatles covers, suggesting that people go on iTunes and sample the songs — but the downloads they would have to pay for. In the ensuing lull, a fellow in the center of the hall said in a big anchorman’s voice, “With all the money we paid for these tickets, we can’t afford those songs.”
Flack appeared visibly offended, and after a pause replied, “I would like to think that my performance is worth whatever the cost of the ticket.” She drew cheers.
This awkward exchange was emblematic of Flack’s 90-minute set. It never quite gelled, never found its pacing. Disruptions and digressions threatened to derail it. Still, the set had some sublime moments, like a Marvin Gaye medley near the end comprising “Inner City Blues,” “Save the Children” and “Mercy Mercy Me.” Or an inspired remake of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Or a nice version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which began in the hushed fashion of the recording and built to a controlled crescendo.
(Which raises another complaint about the audience: Someone in the rafters belted out a request for that song about 30 minutes into the show. What, like she’s not going to play it?)
Flack was backed by a supple six-piece band plus a male and a female backup singer, who enjoyed their share of the spotlight. Seated at her piano, Flack routinely allowed her younger, more robust sidekicks to handle main melody segments, often in harmony.
Her salty stage persona was funny at times, but could also be disruptive. A host disc jockey issued several reminders that taping and photography were prohibited. Just before she began Harrison’s “Isn’t it a Pity,” she chastised an audience member for being so obvious about his use of a taping device. After the tune, she continued her exasperation, focusing her attention on someone near the back who she said was using a smart phone to record her. After demanding the house lights come up, she continued her diatribe.
Occasionally, such tense moments add to the overall flavor of a concert. Not this time. Here, Flack’s best move was simple: Just let it go; keep the show moving.