Diana Ross, Metro Arena, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture

When Diana Ross served time last year for drink-driving in Arizona, any thoughts of performing live must have seemed a lifetime away. However, when a judge recently ordered the 59-year-old singer to serve a further two-day jail sentence on top of the time already spent behind bars, she doubtless clung to dreams of fan worship to retain some sanity in her world.

What better way for a troubled diva to bask in the love of her public, then, than to play in the round - a performance trick that means she is literally surrounded by her fans? For the audience, though, the experience can be less satisfactory, as it ensures that for a large percentage of the performance, the star will have her back to you. So, at any given time, huge sections of the crowd are left feeling rather like unwanted participants at an orgy; their love showered less on Ross's trademark red lips and wild hair than on her behind.

Thus, seven years after her last appearance in Newcastle - when she sustained minor injuries from falling off the stage - a sell-out crowd watches the Ross bottom with adoration as she goes through costume-change after costume-change, delivers hit after hit and reminds us often of how much she "cherishes" our love.

That it doesn't seem to matter that she gives a lot of the performance to another part of the arena says much about both her skills as a performer and her undoubted charisma. Ross comes from the less-is-more-school of performance, in which the slightest hand-gesture speaks volumes and no move is rushed. Her only real on-stage extravagances are the costume-changes, which involve her donning sequins and feathers of all colours and dresses that reveal just enough leg to make the average 20-year-old woman feel a pang of envy, let alone those pushing 60, like the singer herself.

After the muted opening salvo of her earliest hits, the first hint of that Ross magic comes with the funky genius of "Love Hangover". As the soulful intro gives way to an elongated instrumental jam, the singer vacates the stage, to return wearing a white feather number. What follows is pure Vegas brilliance, as she glides around the stage, bringing every section of the crowd to its feet in a bizarre display of Mexican-wave-like fan worship.

From here on, she can do no wrong. Sure, her delivery on "I'm Coming Out" reveals cracks in the upper reaches of her vocal range. And the cabaret quality of her voice on both "Touch Me in the Morning" and "Endless Love" are a reminder of the thin line that divides Vegas from a cruise ship - one over-sung note too many, and even Diana Ross threatens to sink into Jane McDonald territory. But hers is a performance of unadulterated quality.

That is a point made most powerfully in the opening of the second half, as she performs a series of jazz standards. Not only does she reveal a gorgeous, Billie Holiday-esque quality to her voice, but she delivers a timely reminder that no amount of marketing can create talent or charisma.

Diana Ross plays the NEC Arena, Birmingham, tonight; and Wembley Arena tomorrow

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