Two music legends fill Oak Bluffs with joyful music

Smokey Robinson sang his classics: "Crusin'," "The Way You Do the Things You Do," and "My Girl." — Photo by Angelina Godbout

August has been an auspicious month for Martha’s Vineyard. Following in the wake of the First Family’s vacation, the Island was visited last weekend by the Founding Father of Motown, Smokey Robinson, and music royalty Natalie Cole. Two star-studded evenings of entertainment packed the Tabernacle in the Oak Bluffs Campground and filled downtown Oak Bluffs with the strains of some of popular music’s most memorable songs.

The concerts were part of a weekend-long festival from the newly founded On the Vine productions. Producer Dennis Shortt hopes to establish the concert series, a fundraiser for kidney disease research, as an annual event on the Vineyard along with a sister festival in Santa Barbara, Calif.

There was a buzz around the Campground starting early on Thursday afternoon as crews erected tents for a reception and silent auction, tech members set up speaker stacks, lights, huge video screens, banners, and other trappings of an arena concert, and people milled around the curtained venue to catch some bits of music during sound check.

At 6:30 on Thursday, the party began. After a little introductory material by funnyman Tony Roberts, three-time Grammy award nominee Angie Stone kicked off her high heels and put her all into a handful of original R&B tunes. Ms. Stone’s enthusiasm was infectious: she got the crowd up on their feet and singing along.

During the break, Emmy-award winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault conducted short interviews with the leader in groundbreaking kidney disease research in Israel, Dr. Karl Skorecki, and a young man who recently donated a kidney to his mother.

Smokey Robinson then took the stage. At 73, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is still a force to be reckoned with. His energy, positivity, and charisma carried the audience on a 90-minute high as he ran through a selection from his vast repertoire of hit songs including “My Girl,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Cruisin’,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” Many times Robinson led the audience — who needed no encouragement — in singing along. The surprisingly youthful performer never seemed to tire, executing sometimes demanding moves, cracking jokes, and bantering with the audience the entire time. The crowd was enthralled.

On Saturday night, Natalie Cole likewise had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Following a few dramatic numbers by violinist Miri Ben Ari, who accompanied recorded music, and a crowd pleasing (especially appealing to the women in attendance) set by R&B star Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Ms. Cole took over. From her opening song, she exuded her winning combination of cool and immense charm that has won her nine Grammy awards and millions of fans.

Looking trim in gold trousers and a black lace top, Ms. Cole took the crowd through both her, and her father’s, illustrious careers, even sharing vocals with her famous dad on two tunes as old images and video flashed on the two giant video screens. The virtual duet of the immortal “Unforgettable” was, of course, the biggest crowd pleaser with father and daughter blowing kisses to each other at the end. Ms. Cole sang three songs in Spanish from her latest CD, Natalie Cole en Espanol, ending her set with “Oye Como Va.” For this last song, the throngs listening outside the Tabernacle were invited in and many in the crowd got up and danced. It was a rousing finish to a fabulous weekend of music.

Organizers are still figuring out how much was raised, which will go to The American Friends of Rambam, the hospital where the kidney disease research is being conducted.