Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Down Low Top Secret Tour: Chicago Tribune Review

R. Kelly Expands His Horizons
 April 25, 1996|By Greg Kot, Tribune Rock Critic.

It used to be the only drama at an R. Kelly concert was what color underwear he would be wearing that night as part of the bump-and-grind burlesque that would be the climax, so to speak, of every performance.

Kelly, the South Side crooner who has become the masculine heartthrob in rhythm and blues with a trio of salacious, sexy and sometimes downright soulful albums that have sold more than 7 million copies, was at it again Tuesday in the first of three concerts at the UIC Pavilion.
But Kelly's showmanship has also taken on a broader dimension since his 1994 tour, even if there were hip-quaking, thigh-thrusting moments when it still appeared as though a live squirrel was tucked in his pants desperately searching for an escape route.

Stalking a three-tiered stage like a restless lover and an inflamed preacher, the eager-to-please singer turned the arena into a bedroom and a church, a place where secrets and sins, desires and disappointments were confessed.

Peeling off his suit, with suspenders dragging and T-shirt rumpled, Kelly declared, "I don't want to offend nobody. I just want to tell the truth tonight."

There's truth in Kelly's voice, a lithe instrument with a tremulous tone that verges on a sob. It's versatile enough to whisper a seduction or a prayer, roar with leonine lust or cry out in pain. Like the great soul singers who have preceded him, from Ray Charles to Marvin Gaye, Kelly is learning how to blur the lines between those emotions. In the finest R&B, the caprice and carousing of Saturday night melds into the solitude and reckoning of Sunday morning.

This performance was a brilliantly orchestrated affair, from the way Kelly directed the band with subtle gestures and entertained the audience with broad ones, to the progression from sex to sorrow to salvation traveled by the music and the witty, captivating videos that accompanied it.
Kelly's sexual escapades are now delivered with a wink rather than a leer, whether going on a fishing expedition in his pants for a missing poem or emerging in all his bald-headed glory from a simulated hot tub with a lounging female companion. In celebrating the erotic in "Your Body's Callin' " and "Sex Me," Kelly sounded both like a tender lover and a playful one.

But the stakes were raised with the fierce longing summoned by "I Can't Sleep Baby (If I)," as the singer traded exhortations with his three backing vocalists, and on "Down Low," which was shaped by Kelly's wordless vocal cadences. Even though many of the singer's songs eschew hard funk and soul rhythms, Kelly is a master of applying the rhythm oil with his voice at even the most modest tempos.

Above all, Kelly knows how to let a tune simmer before bringing it to a boil. The stunner was the torched gospel ballad "Trade in My Life," with Kelly appearing as a Malcolm X-type minister at a lectern. The song was turned into a tour de force of improvised singing and testifying, as the singer described how he once saw God in his mother's face. Earlier in the show, Kelly cackled about spending most of the evening on his knees, but now that vow implied something quite different.
This bravura performance obscured the fine ones that preceded it, though the 30-minute set by LL Cool J did not go down without a fight. The veteran rapper put on a breathless greatest-hits sprint, from "Rock the Bells" to "Mama Said Knock You Out" to "Hey Lover." Whereas R. Kelly works the stage with a zealot's urgency, LL Cool J swaggers, with bodybuilder sweeps of his muscled arms. Few rappers have ever delivered their verbal bullets with such velocity, precision or well-earned cockiness, and the urgency was magnified by a raw huskiness in LL Cool J's voice. Though the rapper has little to say beyond extolling his skills as a lover or an emcee, he does it with boundless inventiveness.

The vocal group Solo explicitly aims for a '60s soul vibe, but didn't need a medley of "Under the Boardwalk" and Sam Cooke tunes to prove it. The group's own buoyant homage to that era, "Heaven," was reason enough to believe in the transforming power of the human voice.
Only the group Xscape fell short. The voices of the female quartet were more than capable, but the group's songs are a generic blend of love-you-all-night ballads and funk-lite workouts that are the scourge of less-adventurous R&B radio stations.

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