For the least two years, the area in front of the Staples Center has been the site of a massive construction project, the behemoth “LA Live” complex. Costing approximately $2.5 billion, the complex is home to the Nokia Theatre, a venue that is described as “mid-size” (though it seats 7,100 people) and is scheduled to host the Emmy awards for at least the next ten years.
Although I’ve got nothing against the music of Joe Cocker, aside from his seeming lack of original material, I wouldn’t consider myself a fan. Even so, I leapt at the chance to see him play at the Nokia; it’s been open for less than a year and I was very curious to see what it was like. I was suitably impressed. The design of the entire theater is very slick and modern, with translucent lobby walls that change color and concession menus that are featured on LCD television screens. On one hand, everything feels a bit corporate and seems like it will be dated in just a few short years, but on the other hand, it’s hard to inhale that new-car smell that permeates the theater and not feel a little bit intoxicated.
Joe Cocker was incredibly punctual; his performance began exactly at 8:00 p.m. almost to the second. He was dressed, perhaps (but probably not) in homage to Johnny Cash, all in black. Sporting the scruff of a beard, he began the show swaying slightly, with almost palsied movements that betrayed his age. Of course, when he began belting out familiar songs with his trademark guttural growl, it was obvious that his vocal chords haven’t aged a bit.
The stage was set up so that every member of the band was fully visible. Joe shared the lowest level of the stage with the guitarist and bassist, and behind them on separate risers were a baby grand pianist, the drums, a saxophonist, a hammer organ, and a swaying pair of ebony backup singers. The band members weren’t shy about stepping forward for individual solos, and Joe didn’t seem jealous about sharing his stage time with them. The lighting for the show was fairly simple, with lots of purples and reds.
Aside from the occasional (very annoying) strobe flash towards the audience, it was very dark inside the theater. With three stories of luxury boxes in the back and an excellent pitch to the seats in the orchestra and pit sections, the Nokia Theatre felt a bit like an opera house. There’s no such thing as a bad seat, and the pair of enormous TV screens framing the stage provided continuous close-ups of the performance. The audience seemed to be composed of people who had wished they had been to Woodstock, rather than those who had actually been, but I didn’t see a single person that didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves.
Although the tour is framed as being in support of Joe Cocker’s new album, Hymn for my Soul, the performance featured just about every one of his familiar hits. Aided by one of the backup singers filling the part of Jennifer Warnes, he sang “Up Where We Belong” (made famous from its use in Officer and a Gentleman) early in the show. Joe Cocker is best known for his covers, and the show featured no shortage of these staples. He played “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston), “Summer in the City” (The Lovin’ Spoonful), “Come Together” (The Beatles), “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (Randy Newman), “Unchain my Heart” (Ray Charles), and of course, closed the show with “With a Little Help From my Friends,” his version of the Beatles song that graced the opening credits of The Wonder Years.
The crowd rose to its feet several times during the show, and stayed up throughout the encore, which featured “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Cry Me a River.” Joe’s voice didn’t seem to deteriorate throughout the show, which was truly remarkable, considering that during every single song he seemed to be holding nothing back.
While this article’s title isn’t entirely accurate, Joe’s tour with the Steve Miller Band has been pretty intense, especially for a musician who is 64 years old. During the most crowded section of the calendar, from July 10 to July 20, he performed 9 shows in just 11 days. With a lot of high-profile, high-priced tours, purists accuse established artists of trying to shake just a few more coins out of their loyals fans (a sentiment that in the case of Joe Cocker, I would vehemently disagree with). The one thing you couldn’t accuse him of is failing to earn it.