SUPREME LOVE; When they took the stage in silver lame, and started belting out hits, it didn't matter that Diana Ross was the trio's only original. It was group therapy for the Motown-deprived.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Who would have thought that Diana Ross and the Supremes would have made their comeback as an opening act?

But that's pretty much what happened Wednesday night, when Ross and the Supremes kicked off their "Return to Love" tour at the First Union Spectrum in Philadelphia. The show opened with an hour-long set in which the reconstituted trio ran through its greatest hits, everything from "Where Did Our Love Go" to "The Happening." Then, after a brief intermission, the crowd was treated to a set by the show's headliner: Miss Diana Ross.

Not that this arrangement should come as any surprise. After all, the Supremes as a group have taken a back seat to Ross as a star since 1967, when the group's name was officially changed from "The Supremes" to "Diana Ross and the Supremes." Ross finally went solo in 1970.

It's also worth noting that the two Supremes on hand Wednesday - Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne - didn't join the group until long after Ross had departed. Of course, original Supreme Florence Ballard could not have performed, having died of a heart attack in 1978. But Mary Wilson, who helped form the group with Ross and Ballard, had in fact been part of the plans for the Return to Love tour. Unfortunately, there apparently wasn't enough love to ensure Wilson's return; hence the inclusion of Lawrence and Payne.

But so what? If anyone in the crowd felt cheated at seeing second- and third-generation Supremes harmonizing behind Ross, it didn't show in the audience response. From the moment the three shimmied on stage in matching silver lamM-i evening gowns, they had the audience in the palms of their hands.

Obviously, it didn't hurt that the Supremes have one of the best "books" in popular music. By the time Ross left, the group had released a dozen No. 1 singles, and these reconstituted Supremes had no qualms about exploiting that back list.

"We're just going to keep hitting you with the hits!" Ross kept saying, and indeed, the hits just kept on coming: "Where Did Our Love Go." "Stop! In the Name of Love." "Back In My Arms Again." "You Can't Hurry Love." "You Keep Me Hangin' On." "Baby Love." "Love Child."

It was like watching a human jukebox, as Ross and company recaptured the sound and spirit of those classic Motown hits.

They didn't do "I Hear a Symphony," but they could have, considering the number of musicians on stage. Besides an 11-piece rock band and three back-up singers, Ross and the Supremes had a full string section as well as an array of brass and woodwinds behind them.

Out in the audience, what we heard was the "Diana Ross" mix - that is, a lot of vocal over a markedly subdued instrumental bed. Described on paper, that balance may seem something of a divaish indulgence on Ross' part, but through the course of the evening it became obvious that pumping up her volume was a practical necessity.

Ross still knows how to caress a note, and has held onto much of the luster that characterized her kittenish lower register when she was a Supreme. But the higher she sings, the thinner her tone gets, and the harder she pushes those upper notes, the less accurate her pitch became. Consequently, her yearning take on "Someday" (from "West Side Story") seemed more like "Somehow," as Ross tried to will those high notes into existence.

But hey - the problems Ross had with pitch were nothing compared to the woman sitting behind me, and there were times when I heard as much of her as I did of the Supremes. Which was fine with the star.

"I want you to join in with us, because I love it when you sing," she told the crowd early on in the show. "I love it when you have fun."

Love is everywhere

Then again, Ross loves just about everything about her audience. She loves it when they sing. She loves it when they dance. She especially loves it when they applaud and shout her name. Darn it, she just loves her fans and took every opportunity to tell them how wonderful they all are.

She also indulges them shamelessly. One couple up front attended with their daughter, an adorable curly haired toddler, and when Ross caught sight of the dad holding his little girl up, she had him lift the tyke onto the stage. She and the Supremes then did a quick reprise of "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" for the little girl, who immediately started dancing. "A Supreme!" said Ross, clearly delighted.

You won't see that sort of thing at Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young shows, let me tell you.

Another thing you won't see with CSNY - or any other rock group of that vintage - is regular costume changes. Neil Young, for instance, looks like he's been wearing the same outfit since 1982.

Ross and the Supremes, on the other hand, changed clothes like clockwork, every 20 minutes. For the first third of their set, there were the silver lamM-i gowns; for the second third, kicky lime green pantsuits with sequined bell-bottoms. Then, after Lawrence offered the only post-Ross Supremes song of the evening, "Up the Ladder to the Roof," Ross emerged in a black, beaded gown complimented by a feather boa about the size of a throw rug. (The Supremes, for those keeping score at home, stuck with their pantsuits.)

We hadn't seen anything yet, though. When the curtain went up for the second act, Ross emerged wearing an outfit that looked as if it had been designed by the conceptual artist Christo - a black-velvet dress augmented by a psychedelic-spangled bustier, which (along with the singer) was wrapped in a 15-foot pink tulle train. And as the band pumped the intro to "I'm Coming Out," Ross emerged as if from a chrysalis.

Judging from the number of same-sex couples who sprang to their feet as Ross sang the opening line, it seems unlikely that many in the crowd needed such a literal rendering of the lyric. But no matter - she loved them, and they loved her. Unconditionally.

Without screens

In fact, the fans were so forgiving that they didn't seem to mind when she pitched a diva fit during "Touch Me in the Morning." After repeatedly shushing the orchestra so she could talk to the audience, she then asked that someone shut off the video screens behind the stage. "I want this to be a concert," she said, explaining her demand to the crowd. "I know you'll watch that," she added, pointing to the screens. "I want you here with me. "Turn the screens off!!" Yes, ma'am.

In an instant, the screens were dark, and Ross was telling us again how much she loved us. "There's no reason I'd let you down," she assured us. Then, as if to prove her love, she clambered down off the stage and walked through the audience, as her dancers gyrated to the disco segment of "Love Hangover."

She means well

Set down on paper, Ross' behavior may seem eccentric, perhaps even unbalanced. But seen in context, it's hard not to be won over by the pure, unbridled honesty of her act. In a way, she's like the good-hearted, gushing aunt whose effusive attention makes little boys squirm, but is forgiven by everyone else because, you know, she means well.

So toward the end of the show, when Ross sashayed onstage in a pale-gold-and-silver number that looked like the world's most expensive bathrobe, no one thought it odd that, after spotting R&B; star Luther Vandross in the audience, she invited him on stage, and then just had him sit there while she sang "Amazing Grace."(He at least did manage to lean over and croon a few lines before the song finished).

She's our Miss Ross, with or without the Supremes. And for the fans, that's more than enough.

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