R. Kelly's tour does excess to an extreme

Concert review

November 26, 2007|By Chris Yakaitis | Chris Yakaitis,Special to The Sun

It started with a bang - seven bangs, actually - and went on to include a half-dozen costume changes, video montages, a brief vaudevillian silent-film riff and an out-of-left-field tribal dance ritual, all woven amid snippets from dozens of popular R&B songs. What R. Kelly's exhaustive performance at 1st Mariner Arena on Saturday night probably needed, if anything, was a little less of everything.

Visiting Baltimore in the second week of his elaborately produced "Double Up" tour, Kelly gave a two-hour-plus performance that was epic in both the positive and negative senses of the word. While the 40-year-old veteran performer took few breaks and confidently navigated through his 17-year catalog, his dramatic impulses too often tipped over into self-indulgent asides that drew largely confused reactions from the crowd.

During the show's climactic act, in which a zoot-suited Kelly conducted the overhead lighting fixtures with a glowing conductor's baton to the strains of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, one male audience member muttered an exasperated expletive.

Lost in the mix was much of Kelly's music, which by his count includes 13 No. 1 singles and 10 No. 1 albums. Rather than playing most of his songs to completion, Kelly spent only about two minutes on each before quickly segueing to the next, giving the show an odd greatest-hits medley effect. Even 2003 hit single "Ignition [Remix]," with its "toot-toot/beep-beep" hook, lasted only as long as a second chorus before blending into "Fiesta."

Also missing was singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, an advertised opening act whose departure from the tour last week was attributed to a contract dispute. His no-show was noted by several audience members who offered an alternative explanation for the falling out.

"R. Kelly kicked him off the show," said 21-year-old Paris Johnson of East Baltimore. "He's cocky like that. That's how he is."

Ne-Yo "is up and coming, and it would have been nice to see that new talent," said Darrwin Lemmon, 39, of East Baltimore. "It seems like they should have been able to put their egos aside for the audience."

Kelly loomed large over the entire evening. The show got off to an atypical on-time start with a short 20-minute set from Washington native J. Holiday, followed by an almost equally brief appearance by Keyshia Cole, who had audience members singing along to "Love" and dancing in their seats to set-closer "Let It Go."

But these opening acts seemed more like cameos in the Kelly-centric production.

Kelly began his performance with the stage reconfigured as a boxing ring, entering the arena to the throbbing downbeats of "The Champ," punctuated by seven deafening cannon blasts. This opening salvo concluded with a shower of sparks from the ceiling, a fairly representative lead-in to a concert that would insistently mingle spectacle with song, to varying effect.

On numbers such as "Hotel" and "R&B Thug," Kelly comfortably held court for the half-full arena crowd, who grooved en masse to the driving R&B beats that define his signature sound. The audience reacted strongly to ballads such as early hit "Slow Dance (Hey Mr. DJ)," and Kelly's performance was most effective in these more subdued moments.

But rather than play exclusively to these strengths, the show piled on elements that ran from unnecessary to bizarre and that at times undercut the show's momentum. One extended interpretive dance bit saw Kelly seemingly sacrificed by six leopard-skin-bikini-clad backup dancers. While visually compelling, it left most audience members standing in stunned curiosity as a resurrected Kelly began singing "Bump N' Grind," one of his most recognizable songs.

Nor could the notorious singer - whose trial on child pornography charges has been delayed while he tours - resist a handful of sexually charged moments. He dedicated one new, nonalbum song to "big booty girls" and received a rough approximation of a lap dance during a rendition of T-Pain's "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)."

Near the show's midway point, an offstage Kelly lamented over the speakers about critics who say his show is too long. "I can't help it if I write all these hits!" he said.

But tellingly, most of the crowd had already headed for the exits at the show's conclusion while Kelly lingered onstage in a confetti shower.

Afterward, 21-year-old Melinda Bellamy of East Baltimore waited in line for a photo in front of a R. Kelly mural, one of several set up throughout the arena concourse. But she noted that Cole and Holiday should have been equally well-represented on stage and in the merchandise booths.

"R. Kelly basically did the show by himself," Bellamy said. "R. Kelly had everything. He needs to stop acting like that. It's not all about him."

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