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LaBelle creates a sensation

A congregation of about 2,000 hooted, hollered and sometimes cried with soul sensation Patti LaBelle on Sunday night at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

LaBelle's show was tinged with gospel music from the beginning. Draped in a billowing lime green choir robe, adorned with the red ribbon symbolizing the AIDS struggle, LaBelle ascended from the middle of the stage in a halo of dry ice and belted out a gospel tune to warm up her diehard fans.

As anticipated, LaBelle tore off the robe, revealing a tapered floor-length black gown, cut extra short in front, before going into the instantly recognizable Somebody Loves You from last year's Burnin' album.

Nobody cared that LaBelle doesn't have an new album out, or any current singles on the charts. Nobody cared that she relied heavily on the LaBelle antics of old _ the onstage theatrics, flirting with the slew of men surrounding the stage waiting to be invited up to dance, and sending her shoes airborne as she warms to the song.

The diverse crowd, which included families and drag queens, didn't even seem to mind when she gave them a brief sermon about loving each other and how people must become more compassionate again. They came to see music's most accessible diva strut, prance and sing to them.

After all, how many modern music legends would let two handfuls of men sing with them onstage and finish off songs rolling around on the floor in expensive evening gowns? Aretha wouldn't do it. Barbra wouldn't do it, and Diana wouldn't even think about it.

"I always appreciate playing Tampa because I don't even have a record out and you're always here for me," she said, telling the crowd to look for a new release in August.

LaBelle's spirited 10-piece backup band, including saxophonist Pamela Williams, who occasionally sits in with Arsenio Hall's posse, made the classics sound fresh.

While there was no apparent thought put into where songs would be sung, LaBelle's standbys New Attitude, On My Own, If You Asked Me To and If Only You Knew showed off a still near-perfect voice with amazing power and range.

LaBelle also spiced up the show covering songs like Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry, kd lang's Constant Craving and Tina Turner's Simply the Best.

But the audience clearly liked LaBelle's songs the best; her rousing finale of the bawdy classic Lady Marmalade and Feels Like Another One had them on their feet.

Like a pair of well-worn jeans, LaBelle's show was predictable, yet familiar and comfy. Just like the down-to-earth diva likes it.

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