These days, spectacle is simply part of the package for most big-name pop concerts. Whether it's a matter of computer-controlled lighting, Disney-style mechanized props or choreography of a sort that would have left Busby Berkeley reeling, no effect is too special if it promises to leave the crowd dazed and amused.
But even the usual level of high-tech razzle-dazzle is not enough for Hammer. He wants to go beyond spectacle, and take his audience into unknown realms of sight and sound. Some might consider it hyper-entertainment; others may call it sensory overload. But from where I sat in the Baltimore Arena last night, it was simply too damn much.
Start with the sound, an auditory assault that took the phrase "booming system" all too literally. It wasn't just that the bass was so brutally concussive that every kick-drum beat felt like a blow to the head; on some tunes, like "Let's Get It Started" or "Help the Children," the sound was simply too loud to be comprehensible, even with earplugs!
TC Then there was the staging, which alternated visual overkill -- oversized props, large-screen video, indoor fireworks, etc. -- with awkward moments of silence. After "This Is the Way We Roll," for instance, Hammer and his posse rolled offstage and the arena sat, dark and quiet, for several minutes before it occurred to anyone that the show should go on. (Personal to Hammer: Have you ever considered rehearsals?)
Given the size of Hammer's ensemble -- a congregation including 13 instrumentalists, another dozen vocalists and more busily gyrating dancers than could be counted -- traffic control can't be easy. And, to be fair, it was fun most of the time to see him put the ensemble through its paces. But there's a difference between choreography and clutter, and there were times (like in "Turn This Mutha Out") when it was difficult to pick Hammer out from the crowd.
Yet when Hammer got back to roots -- stripping "Feel My Power" to its revival-meeting essence, or leading his crew through rap classics like "The Breaks" and "Rapper's Delight" -- his performance was fun, infectious and near-flawless. Perhaps he ought to rethink his performance philosophy, keeping in mind that sometimes more is less.
He wouldn't have to look far to find a good model, either. Boyz II Men, who preceded Hammer, had only a fraction of his stage time and none of the visual aids. Yet by the time this quartet kicked into the hiphop-meets-harmony groove of "Motownphilly," the crowd was in ecstasy.
And rightly so. After all, not only was Boyz II Men's set all meat and no filler, but the song selection showed the group's strengths to admirable effect, from the a cappella "It's SO Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" to the bump-and-grind of "Uhh Ahh." Add a personable presence and some spry dance moves, and Boyz II Men definitely delivered the goods.