Usher works hard - to little effect

On stage, flash and dash, but not much actual singing

MusicReview

August 09, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Barely 10 minutes into the show, sweat covered Usher's face, drenching the front of his shirt. It was obvious Friday night at 1st Mariner Arena that he wanted to prove true his boasts of being a master showman - with moves and voice that dazzle. If the hype in recent interviews with the pop star is to be believed, you should leave his show awe-struck. After all, he is, in his own words, an "ultimate entertainer."

Well, the guy is charismatic, and his songs are the most infectious things on the radio right now. But because Usher seems to think he's fabulous, it was hard to feel connected to his show. There was a slightly annoying, hey-guys-look-what-I-can-do quality to this bombastic, overblown production, replete with scantily clad female dancers and occasional sprays of sparks at either end of the stage.

Some futuristic B-movie must have been the inspiration for the clunky, industrial-looking set. The show kicked off with a video shown on a giant screen of a faux trailer for a blockbuster flick starring - who else? - Usher. Scenes of folks buying tickets to a theater were interspersed with scenes of Usher strolling down the halls of a venue, on his way to the stage, looking serious and so focused.

As the screen faded to black, the performer himself rose above the stage on a small platform. Soon after, the sweating began. The Tennessee native and his troupe of dancers - eight in all - reprised routines from his videos. During "You Make Me Wanna," the pop star and his four male dancers danced with silver chairs in the tightly choreographed sequence from the 1997 video that seemingly has never left MTV's rotation.

By the way, Usher, backed by a nondescript five-piece band, barely sang a line of the song. The packed house of enthusiastic teens filled in for him. Throughout the show, in fact, singing was secondary to the dance routines. When he managed to sing a phrase, the performer understandably sounded worn and winded from all that poppin', lockin' and slidin'. The whole show, which radiated a hip-hop Vegas vibe, felt overly rehearsed and, at times, unnecessarily raunchy.

At intervals, Usher suggestively grabbed his crotch and fondled his female dancers (who during "Bad Girl," a cut from his latest album, Confessions, sported black dominatrix-like get-ups). Looking like a pimp, Usher wore a pale pink suit and white fedora while the girlie dancers, bumped and ground around him. You felt like you were watching a mannish 16-year-old live out his R-rated fantasies on stage.

During "Superstar," (another song from Confessions, not the famed Leon Russell-penned chestnut), Usher chose a woman from the audience to serenade. Supposedly, he had picked her randomly, but her composure as she reclined on a chaise on stage made you wonder if she was indeed part of the act. When she sauntered backstage after the song rather than to her seat, your suspicion was confirmed.

By the time Usher got to "Burn," he seemed too tired to repeat the stellar vocal performance heard on the studio version. But he ended on a high note with the ubiquitous "Yeah!" as red-and-white confetti rained down on the house.

As an interesting contrast, Kanye West, Usher's opening act, conveyed much more with far less. Accompanied by a DJ and fine up-and-coming singer-keyboardist John Legend, the rapper-producer breezed through a spirited set, working the house like an old-school MC.

When he ended with "Jesus Walks," West, too, was dripping sweat and trying to catch his breath. But his work left you energized. Despite all the sweat and razzle-dazzle of Usher's show, you still walked out of the joint yawning.

Concert

What: Usher

When: Aug. 20

Where: MCI Center, 601 F. Street N.W., Washington

Tickets: $49.50-$78.00; call Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

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