Live review: R. Kelly at the Nokia Theatre
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R. Kelly put a remarkable amount of effort into the organization of a show Saturday night that ultimately lacked a center.
Playing the first of two concerts at the Nokia Theatre in support of last year’s excellent “Love Letter” album, the R&B superstar arrived onstage amid some elaborate scene-setting: bright neon signs advertising imagined establishments inspired by Kelly’s product, such as the Double Up Diner; a small bar behind which a sullen-looking man poured drinks; crisply designed jazz-band-style music stands for the singer’s eight backing musicians.
Before he even appeared — following desultory opening sets by Keyshia Cole and Marsha Ambrosius — Kelly’s warm-up mix interspersed soul classics by Al Green and Stevie Wonder with old-school TV-show theme songs from “The Brady Bunch” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” And an introductory black-and-white film depicted Kelly as a suave, Humphrey Bogart type fending off the advances of a duplicitous ex.
All of this was working to reinforce the sweet throwback vibe that suffuses “Love Letter,” which mostly abjures Kelly’s usual state-of-the-art raunch in favor of more romantic material the singer has said was influenced by Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. Three years ago Kelly was acquitted in a widely publicized child-pornography case, and this show seemed devised to deepen our impression of his essential innocence.
Or it did for about 10 minutes, anyway. After running through abbreviated versions of some of his sunniest hits — “Happy People,” “Step in the Name of Love,” the new album’s title track — Kelly changed tacks abruptly, suddenly bored by a formal geniality that moments earlier had enabled him to take a handkerchief from a front-row audience member, mop his already-glistening brow, then hand the handkerchief back to the woman with an appreciative smile. He signaled the shift with a question: How many audience members had conceived children while listening to his music? The answer led to a frantic, hour-long dig through Kelly’s libertine back catalog; any connection to the framework suggested by the musicians’ dinner jackets vanished.
On its face that was fine. More than fine, in fact: As skilled a freewheeler as anyone performing right now, Kelly did long, compelling riffs on “Strip for You,” during which he scoured the crowd for someone willing to entertain his offer, and “Number One,” part of which he sang while standing atop a chair in the middle of an orchestra-section aisle. Near the end of this extended medley, Kelly dipped into “Real Talk,” from 2007’s “Double Up,” his singing stretching out into a kind of profane, streetwise Sprechstimme.
Kelly’s problem Saturday was that each off-the-cuff peak implied the promise of another, which meant that much of the show ended up resembling a valley. You were waiting for something wild to happen, but often what happened was only a verse or two of a song. (Even great songs — “When a Woman’s Fed Up,” “Ignition (Remix),” a Notorious B.I.G. collaboration with an unprintable title — felt diminished.)
So it came as a relief when Kelly left the stage after “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” then returned wearing the suit of a small-town preacher and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He had one more set piece to perform, and it revived (however fleetingly) the show’s putative concept. It was “When a Woman Loves,” a Percy Sledge-ish ballad from “Love Letter.” On record the song keeps threatening to turn into a studious museum piece, but at the Nokia, where Kelly dropped to one knee at the climax, he gave it the self-conscious weight of full-on melodrama. He was making enough room inside a memory for R. Kelly.
-- Mikael Wood