From the opening moments, when he drifted over the crowd on a metal platform, and then, suspended like Spider-Man, walked across its vertical peak, it was evident that this Usher show would be as much flash as substance.
But 32-year-old Usher Raymond has carved a substantial career out of being not just a dancer, not just a singer and not just an entertainer, but an anomaly in music – an impressive combination of all three.
At Sunday’s homecoming show in front of a sold-out and squealing Philips Arena audience, the multi-hyphenate Alpharetta resident spent two hours dripping sweat, exhibiting his sculpted physique and touring a catalog of almost 15 years of hits.
He opened with “Monstar,” from his recent “Raymond v. Raymond,” but a few songs later Usher ditched his futuristic-military-black outfit to go retro in a red zipper jacket and swoop back to 1997 for “You Make Me Wanna” and “Nice and Slow.”
Usher’s musical heart might now beat to the electro-Euro club sound favored by will.i.am and Polow da Don, but not at the expense of the R&B backbone that escalated him to international superstardom.
For every smokin’ “Hot Tottie” with chest-rattling synth bass came an easy-thumping “Love in This Club” or playfully innocuous “U Remind Me.”
And through them all, Usher never stopped moving, seducing or exuding immense waves of self-confidence.
“It’s so good to be home!” he proclaimed early in the show (pre-concert, Ne-Yo and Jermaine Dupri were spotted in the crowd).
Though the sound from Usher’s vocal mic was mired in a sludgy echo the first couple of songs, by “Yeah!” — a surprising three tunes in – the necessary technical adjustments were made. Not that this audience cared too much about vocal precision.
As long as Usher ripped off his breakaway shirt like a Chippendale dancer, engaged in his rubber-ankle moves with a cadre of eight dancers and gave the crowd an endless supply of singalong choruses, the fans were sated.
That said, Usher’s smooth falsetto appeared during “U Remind Me” and his dramatic and passionate display during the melancholy “Burn” – still his most lyrically mature song – demonstrated the vocal fire buried under some of his more over-produced songs.
But throughout the show, Usher seemed most intent to dazzle with his fluid balletic spins and Michael Jackson-inspired footwork (for a few minutes, the heir to the King of Pop donned a set of glittery boots and paid homage with a quick dance routine on a moving catwalk) and remind the many, many women in the crowd that he’s back on the market.
A pelvic thrust here, a rump slap for a (female) dancer there – it’s all part of the act and, mostly, entertaining.
It was, however, slightly unsettling watching him prowl the stage for a solid five minutes, deciding which woman would get plucked out of the crowd for a lucky five minute spin of simulated sex on a couch in close proximity to Usher sweat.
They’re people, not cuts of meat to be pointed at.
Amusingly, his first choice turned him town, deciding she was too shy to get sexed up on stage in front of 17,000 people.
Girl No. 2 had no such inhibitions, and Usher even seemed a bit startled at her aggressive grinding against him as he sang “Trading Places.”
But while Usher might one day have to engage in an ab-off with opener Trey Songz (whose loverboy antics threatened to overshadow his talent, displayed on a version of Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” and the sinewy groove of “Bottoms Up”), for the foreseeable future, the throne still belongs to Mr. Raymond.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene blog
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