Anita Baker gives sweet love at LCA in long-awaited Detroit homecoming

Note: Anita Baker barred media photographers from her Friday concert at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. In this file photo, she is pictured in October 2019 at the grand opening of Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.

Not so long ago, odds seemed slim we’d ever see Anita Baker back on a Detroit stage.

The homegrown singer stopped touring in 2013, announced her retirement four years later, then staged a series of farewell dates before the pandemic hit. Until Friday night came along, Baker hadn’t played here in more than a decade.

So her visit to Little Caesars Arena, where she performed Friday for an enthralled, sellout audience hanging on every syllable, was like a bonus cherry-on-top in the singer’s celebrated career. And it helped make history right.

In a 90-minute show filled with her signature jazzy-R&B hits, Baker turned things intimate in the big arena while showing that her instantly identifiable voice remains potent. 

It was a classy affair with moments of magic, even if things got halting and clunky between songs — an odd note of uncertainty from an artist whose musical abilities are clearly intact.

This show came in hot: Tickets sold out in in less than an hour last month, and the energy inside LCA Friday was crackling with the feel of a big-time event, complete with pyrotechnics and a closing blast of confetti.

Some of these local fans have been devoted to Baker since her ’70s days with the Detroit band Chapter 8. And based on a show of hands solicited by the singer during the show, the crowd included a fair number of folks who’d traveled across the country for the occasion.

Taking the stage in a sequined jumpsuit and golden shawl, Baker was briefly teary-eyed as she greeted the crowd, mouthing “thank you” as she absorbed the scene. She seemed caught up in giddiness for her opening number, “Same Ole Love (365 Days a Year),” punching the air and peppering the song with excited “oowww’s!”

Backed by a tuxedoed seven-piece band and three backing singers, Baker frontloaded the set with six songs from her 1986 breakout album “Rapture” — a rollcall of hits that had the LCA crowd singing along in full voice.

Baker was settling into her comfort zone and smiling wide by the time she got to career staples such as “Sweet Love,” “Been So Long” and “Caught Up in the Rapture.” They were among show highlights that included a shimmering “Angel,” a special moment plucked from her early solo days; an emotional “Fairy Tales” late in the set; and “Lead Me into Love,” where Baker made soft-lit sounds blossom into a musical crescendo with her backing vocalists.

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Even with her abundant vocal skills and wide range, Baker has never been one to grandstand as a singer, instead relying on the warmth and richness of her tone to sell a song with nuance. That doesn’t mean she’s incapable of vocal fireworks on demand, and she was happy to ignite them Friday when needed to drive home numbers like “No One in the World.”

Not every 64-year-old singer holds up as well as Baker has managed. She sounded strong at LCA, whether climbing up the scale or nestling into her lower register in her trademark move. She scatted and improvised — even turning her stage chatter into melodies on the spot.

Friday’s show was best when Baker zeroed in on her music. The stretches between songs could have used tightening: Too often, the pace felt tentative and rambling, as if Baker was self-conscious in her big moment.

She made a running joke out of her age: “I’m too old for this,” she said at one point, later declaring it was “almost time for night-night.” But given the polish of her vocal performance, the excuses weren’t necessary. If Baker was nervous during her hometown return, she needn’t have been.

Still, it brought a kind of authentic, organic edge to the otherwise elegant proceedings, and Friday felt like a grassroots Detroit celebration of a well-loved native daughter.

After paying tribute to early collaborators such as producer Michael Powell and late drummer Ricky Lawson, Baker thanked the audience for “keeping these Detroit compositions alive.”

“People think there’s some big machine behind me,” she said. “And it’s you.”

Baker, who moved out west some years back, recounted arriving in the city Thursday and driving downtown when she spotted “The Spirit of Detroit” statue. She said she felt compelled to get out of her vehicle: “It felt like home to me.”

So it was probably no accident that “You Bring Me Joy” was placed as the last song of the night. Sweet and yearning, followed by the celebratory confetti, it was Anita Baker’s closing thank-you to a hometown crowd that was very happy to love her back.

Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or bmccollum@freepress.com.

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