NPR logo My Night With Dionne Warwick

My Night With Dionne Warwick

Over the weekend, I drove out to Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde, Ore., to see Dionne Warwick perform. I had never seen Warwick in concert, and I wasn't sure what exactly to expect. For one, the casino setting can be a bit sterile, not to mention surreal. Perhaps in Vegas or Atlantic City, casino performances entail linen-covered round tables and cocktail waitresses, but in rural Oregon, all it means is a carpeted room, a "no alcohol beyond this point" sign and folding chairs. For another, Warwick is in her late 60s, so I was aware that she might have lost the vocal range necessary to sing all of her hits.

On account of traffic, I arrived at the venue about 15 minutes late. The show began at 8 p.m., and whereas that time might merely be a guesstimate at an average rock show, for Warwick — and for anyone showing up in a walker or wheeling in on a Rascal — 8 o'clock means 8 o'clock. Sharp. As they say in Facebook parlance, "I like it."

My friend and I walked in right as Warwick launched into "Alfie." I then witnessed what would become protocol for the rest of the show — namely, that it's okay to remain seated as long as you leap up or make an audible gasp every time a song you like begins. For the leaping-up part, I took cues from an 80-year old woman in a pink sweatshirt with a built-in collar a few rows ahead of me. I figured that if she could jump to her feet and applaud with alacrity, heck, so could I. As for the gasp, I needed no prompting; half the crowd and I let out a collective "ahhh" when the band kicked in with "What the World Needs Now."

As for Warwick herself, she's a master. Her voice, though not what it used to be, is still impressive: easy-going, cool and distinct. But what awed me the most were her showmanship and her diva-begins-and-ends-with-me attitude. With Dionne Warwick, you feel like she's really earned the right to boss you around.

As an audience, we first got schooled when we offered tepid, thanks-for-playing-along applause during the introduction of her band. Warwick pointed out that she and her band were up on stage working, and that our cheering was not merely a learned and obligatory response, but real nourishment for them. So, that's right, we had to do it again. Later on, we weren't quite loud enough during a sing-along, and after a quick lesson in voice projection, we belted out a chorus a cappella, three times in a row. Another "pearl of wisdom" (her term) thrown our way: whenever you sneeze, your heart stops, so when people say "God bless you" in response, they are saying it because He really has blessed us with starting our hearts back up. We loved it. We ate it up. We laughed knowingly and exchanged glances with the people next to us.

Then, after a rousing, hand-gesture-filled version of "That's What Friends Are For," the concert was over. It was 9 p.m. on the dot. One word: Professional. Okay, another word: Raindrops.

Raindrops was the name of the casino bar we hit up after the show, only because we'd heard Warwick would be there. And she was. In a denim button-up shirt and glasses (a getup that made her look almost identical to my grandmother), smoking a cigarette and drinking some bubbly, Warwick and her band hung out and listened to the tunes of someone named DJ George, a.k.a. The Mixologist.

During a mystifying Kid Rock tune, I got up the nerve and ventured over to Warwick's table to tell her that I loved the show. Our "conversation" should have ended there. Instead, I tried to engage her in a discussion about Northern Soul music and talk to her about how no one was dancing to this particular DJ. She nodded her head along to the Kid Rock song while her friend warned me not to dis Detroit. I scurried back to my seat without the picture I had every intention of getting.

Then we hit the casino, where I proceeded to lose $20 in five minutes. And, while I have a long way to go and am still working on my composure and gravitas, Dionne Warwick has always been — and still is — a class act.

I feel lucky to have seen Warwick while she's still performing. If you have any stories from seeing musical legends in concert — or meeting them — feel free to share.