Monday, July 1, 2013

R. Kelly shines at mixed-up BET Experience finale

He opened instead of closed at Staples Center, leading many people to skip the Jacksons.

If for months it had been advertised that R. Kelly would headline Sunday's third and final night of the BET Experience at downtown L.A.'s Staples Center, you'd expect him to top the bill, right?

Of the evening's three acts – Kelly, the Jacksons and a version of New Edition featuring all six members – the "Ignition" singer was certainly the most imminently popular, a surefire choice to keep the arena packed until the concert's conclusion.

Yet, for whatever reason, Kelly appeared as this night's opening act, with New Edition next in line and the four active Jackson brothers as closers. Given that the last group has struggled to draw sizable crowds at recent smaller-sized gigs, the rundown made little sense, and the folly of it became blatant as droves of patrons left before the Jacksons had even delved into their most beloved hits, sadly reducing the audience to no more than one-fifth capacity.

That's not to say their show was a flop. "Can You Feel It" – led by Jermaine, same as with most of their tunes here – was a crackerjack opener and a mid-set medley of "I Want You Back," "ABC" and "The Love You Save" retained all the panache and vigor of the group's first appearance on Ed Sullivan's show in 1969. Cookin' covers of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" rounded out the evening with equally unrestrained energy.

But by the time those latter classics cropped up around midnight, there was hardly anyone left to enjoy them, with most remaining fans slouching in their seats as it went down. Such a shame might have been avoided by bumping them back to opener status, where those hits would have been perfect primers for Kelly's lauded lewdness.

He certainly delivered as a headliner should, filling a full 70 minutes with what played out as an endless medley, drawing cheer after exuberant cheer with brief snippets of memorable cuts like "Snake," "Fiesta," "Flirt" and "Bump N' Grind." And a set-ending, full run through "I Believe I Can Fly" reminded why, despite any controversy he has stirred in recent years, Kelly ranks among the top-selling R&B artists of the past two decades.

Even his signature ad-libs – singing in exaggerated falsetto about how badly he needed a towel to wipe the sweat from his face – were impressive. He may have just been "winging it," as he mentioned a couple of times, but those pipes are solid gold no matter what.

A more redemptive performance this night, however, came from New Edition's Bobby Brown. During the boy-band progenitors' playful member intros, the often embattled star made it clear he had something to prove.

"I know most of y'all think I'm crazy," he said, "but from now on I wanna be known as one thing: Bad. Ass. Bobby. Brown!"

To that effect, he didn't disappoint in the slightest. His singing and synchronized moves were shockingly sharp throughout rousing runs of "Jealous Girl" and "Roni," where his husky howls and haughty hip-shaking drew massive cheers.

By all rights, the rest of the group's performance – which shifted between five and six vocalists, sometimes swapping out Brown for the five-man formation featuring Johnny Gill – proved the outfit's prowess was this evening's true highlight.

"Candy Girl," a stylistic tribute to forbears like the Jacksons, left the audience exultant after an arena-wide dance party. The soft croons on "Can You Stand the Rain" made middle-age women scream like smitten teens. And the fierce funk of Brown's "My Prerogative," followed by the concluding one-two mash-up of "Do Me" and "Poison," showed how this group skillfully and strappingly anticipated so many movements in hip-hop and R&B. Given the ferocity of this infrequent reunion appearance, they could still rule the stage for many years to come.

For the final night of this hat-trick extravaganza, it was understandable that BET wanted to offer a legacy experience tracing influences from newest to most historically legendary. But by cashing out primo talent too early, and without anything special left in the bag – an MJ tribute with Janet on board really would have done the trick – these cards fell into a faltering fold.

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