Toni Braxton said she caught a cold from her 2-year-old son, so that's why her voice was so low, breathy and noticeably underpowered Monday night at the Lyric Opera House. Between all the gratuitous rump-shaking and costume changes (10 in all), she asked the packed house to forgive her.
But why did she feel the need to apologize?
For the past five or six years, the Severn native has all but abandoned the full-throttle, gospel-fueled belting that put her on the pop map nearly 15 years ago. Instead, the seven-time Grammy winner has been sighing huskily through her songs, playing up the coy, Eartha Kitt-inspired sexpot role. And, for a little more than an hour, that's precisely what she did at the Lyric.
Braxton is on tour, her first in 10 years, to support her latest album, the tepid Libra. With a sparkly, industrial-looking stage design that looked like the set from Soul Train circa 1981, Braxton mostly performed her '90s classics. She opened the show with a rocking version of her 1996 chart-topper, "You're Making Me High," which smoothly segued into her current radio single, "Take This Ring," a go-go track that sounds almost identical to Amerie's smash "1 Thing." (No wonder. Both cuts were produced by Rich Harrison, a native Washingtonian.)
During the latter song, Braxton barely sang at all as the five-piece band jammed the tune. Apparently, it was nearly impossible for the pop star to sing out and match the washing machine-like hip action of her four dancers. So she slinked around the stage instead, stopping here and there to grind her hips and interject a "woo!"
Afterward, she slowed it down a bit with "Seven Whole Days," a steamy, mid-tempo number from her mega-selling 1993 debut. Again, Braxton did more breathing than singing as she and her skimpily dressed girls straddled chairs in a cheesy, Broadway-style burlesque routine. When she wasn't doing the self-conscious sexy bit, Braxton managed to have fun with the audience, inviting members up on stage to sing and dance. During "He Wasn't Man Enough" - her last No. 1 hit (from 2000) - the singer's tall, handsome father ascended the stage and hilariously broke out in some old-school urban dance moves, namely the Bankhead bounce and the butterfly.
Looking refreshingly regal in a sparkling ivory gown, Braxton ended the show with an uninspired version of her 1996 power ballad "Un-Break My Heart."
Though the petite, curvy singer is undeniably charismatic, it would be a real treat if the artist would return to her classier beginnings - back when she summoned the Holy Ghost with that forceful, mink-plush voice of hers. Despite her "cold" Monday night, flashes of expressive vocal brilliance peeked through every now and then. But Braxton was quick to rein it in, the better to shake her 36-year-old groove thing.