Soundtrack of a heritage

African-American weekend goes from urban to gospel to oldies

Music Review

June 27, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Around Baltimore this weekend, you could easily find whatever kind of pop you dig - from schmaltz-frosted balladry to jazz-inflected go-go, from slick urban love songs to funked-up soul jams. Whether it was veteran crooner Johnny Mathis, in town to celebrate the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which opened Saturday, or theatrical soul singer Ledisi, who performed at the three-day African American Heritage Festival at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Charm City teemed with sounds of blackness.

Despite the merciless heat, the fourth annual AAHF drew a crowd estimated by Baltimore police at 510,000 people over the three days. People picked and chose, as I did, what acts to feast their ears upon, from bohemian soul singer India.Arie to Christian R&B group R.E.A.L. (Radically Excited About Life).

Faith Evans, in splendid voice, early yesterday evening visited hits old and new. Looking trim and radiant in a T-shirt and miniskirt, Evans was backed by two vocalists, a drummer, a deejay and two keyboardists, one of whom also played bass.

Shielding their eyes from the sun, crowd members and I sang along to such Evans classics as "Soon As I Get Home" and "You Used To Love Me." Evans' gregarious warmth was infectious, her vocals drenched with gospel flourishes.

On Saturday, the main stage acts I caught ranged from feeling warmly engaging to seeming chillingly detached. Gifted soul artist Angie Stone - a fill-in for Vivian Green who was supposed to fill in for Lauryn Hill, the Grammy winning rapper-singer who was originally scheduled - gave a breezy, well-received show. Though she sounded a little hoarse at times, Stone was interesting and well-paced throughout as she sang cuts from her three critically lauded albums: Black Diamond, Mahogany Soul and Stone Love. Her seven-piece, groove-locking band provided buoyant, jazzy accents to "I Wish I Didn't Miss You," which didn't sound much like the album track that referenced the O'Jays' "Backstabbers." Stone, who used to be a member of the early '80s female rap trio Sequence, revisited her rapping roots during "I Wanna Thank Ya." Her smart, energetic rhymes would have benefited the studio version of that song. Instead, she used weak verses by Snoop Dogg.

Mint Condition, the polished R&B band from Minneapolis, followed Stone with a strictly businesslike show. After an unexplained 20-minute wait, the group finally hit the stage. The crowd seemed indifferent to much of the set, whose songs were pulled from Livin' the Luxury Brown, MC's new album that lead singer Stokely Williams shamelessly plugged between every other song. The arrangements - the flashy, synth keyboard lines and crashing guitar chords - started to blend after a while. And after a few songs, Williams' showy, piercing vocal acrobatics grated the nerves, too. He was grounded and almost affecting during the group's biggest hit, 1991's "Pretty Brown Eyes." But the singer killed the momentum afterward when he decided to perform a rambling, self-indulgent drum solo.

Friday night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, legendary pop star Johnny Mathis kicked off the events held to mark the museum's opening with a formal-but-not-quite-stiff concert of old favorites: signature hits and personal picks. Dapper in his crisp black tux, the 69-year-old balladeer slid from one romantic chestnut to another, backed by sweeping arrangements from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Mathis fared best on the slower material, and there was a lot of it. When the orchestra upped the tempo to bossa nova-type songs vibrant with heavy percussion and punchy horns, the singer's voice seemed a bit overwhelmed. He may not hit the high notes with as much force as he used to, but Mathis' mahogany tone and refined delivery remain marvels. He still croons ballads such as "Misty" and "Days of Wine and Roses" with a wide-eyed tenderness as if he truly believes every syrupy line.

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