Lionel Richie is a living, breathing meme – and he loves it


You know where you stand with Lionel Richie. He’s been on the road for two years on his ‘All the Hits’ tour – like you ever expected him to play a show that was in any way ‘difficult’. Lionel is one of the old-school performers, you’re there to be entertained and he’ll do whatever daft stunt he needs to land a smile on your face.

 

Many people did a double-take when they saw he was headlining the first Punchestown Music Festival – but those people probably didn’t see him attracting the biggest ever crowd recorded at Glastonbury.

Over the last decade or so, Richie has become an all-singing, living, breathing meme – from the Lionel Rich Tea mugs, to the endless GIFs of the Hello video and the absurd bust of his head.

But rather than get embarrassed, Lionel is fully in on the joke. I was at his 3Arena show last year and even in the front foyer the self-aware merchandise was hilarious – Hello t-shirts that used the meme artwork, garish tie-dye t-shirts, tote bags and even a ‘keep calm and listen to Lionel’ baseball shirt. His Hello, is it Mud you’re looking for?’ was also the top Glastonbury merch item.

The gig itself was a masterclass in self-effacing showmanship – introducing every song with a story or a punchline, and even doing a routine in “deconstructing the Lionel Richie love song”,  explaining which tracks worked for various stages of love and heartbreak, with all the comic timing of a classic stand-up.

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Of course, the joke routines are only a brilliant bonus – it’s called All the Hits after all. Announcing the tour, he said: “I’ve been around artists who say, ‘I just won’t play the hits, I’ll play something new. That’s why I’m saying it’s all the hits all night. This is just back-to-back karaoke on steroids!”

And seriously, what hits! Lionel’s got the most dependable bunch of songs to get any field dancing in the daftest way possible – he’ll even mock your moves if he spots you in the fron row: “Goddamn I haven’t seen dancing as bad as that since the 80s!”

Richie’s career is one of two halves – with his early years as frontman of The Commodores still forming a big chunk of his set. He drops the big ballads like Easy, Three Times a Lady and Oh No, but he doesn’t leave out the dirty bass-heavy funk of Brick House and the disco horns of Lady (You Bring Me Up) – backed by a crew of impeccable funk session players.

Richie’s true crossover appeal was sealed in his high camp singles All Night Long and Dancing on the Ceiling – two of the funniest and most infectious singles of the 80s, and a staple on every throwback disco or ironic YouTube party.

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And besides these karaoke classics, Lionel can draw on other belters like the disco funk of Running With the Night and the 90s R&B of My Destiny, and throw in WTF segues like Van Halen’s Jump and cult electro new wave hit White Horse by Laid Back (really).

 

Lionel admits he stepped off the gas in the late 80s to take care of his dying father, then worked on building his fanbase in Europe when rap and grunge started to take over MTV in the States.

His albums may never again dominate the charts and land him chart-topping bullseyes, but every time he announces a gig there’ll be hundreds of thousands lining up for some of that daft nostalgia, mixed with a roll-call of songs that soundtracked all their awkward slow-dances.