Music review: El DeBarge at Key Club

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When El DeBarge focused on his music at the Key Club on Thursday, it was impressive. But his attention wandered a lot, making for a volatile stop-and-start show.

It wasn’t clear what exactly El DeBarge was referring to Thursday night when he asked his audience at the Key Club, “How could you love me so much, putting up with all this craziness?”

A falsetto-voiced R&B star since his stint with the early-’80s family band that bore his last name, DeBarge might’ve been describing the drug troubles that have repeatedly sidelined his career over the last two decades, most recently following the release of an excellent 2010 album, “Second Chance,” widely marketed as his comeback. Last year he dropped out of a tour shortly before it was set to begin, citing in a press release his need “to work on me.”

Then again, Thursday’s performance, which lasted less than an hour, felt plenty volatile all by itself, with false song starts, a baffling dance contest and the temporary disappearance partway through of DeBarge, who tearfully retreated behind a curtain at the rear of the stage after singing “Rhythm of the Night.” (A handful of associates coaxed him back out.) So perhaps he was apologizing for more immediate craziness. “I’ve done a couple of no-shows, but I couldn’t do one in L.A.,” DeBarge said near the end of the concert, adding that he was suffering from the flu. “I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

What made this especially frustrating was how good DeBarge could be at the Key Club when he put his frazzled mind to it. Backed only by a drummer and the L.A. hip-hop veteran DJ Quik — the latter of whom sang a bit of Eddie Kendricks’ “Intimate Friends” during DeBarge’s unannounced intermission — the 50-year-old demonstrated how little age has coarsened his feather-light tone in “Stay With Me” and “Time Will Reveal.” His keyboard playing, too, remained nimble and expressive, particularly in a delicate reading of the title track from “Second Chance,” which he said had been one of Whitney Houston’s favorite songs.

It was easy to think of Houston throughout Thursday’s show, as DeBarge’s erratic behavior continued to draw focus away from his music. In “Rhythm of the Night” he spent an enormous amount of time selecting someone from the crowd to compare moves with a mohawked dancer he described as his protégé. And after “Time Will Reveal” he demanded, without apparent provocation, “Don’t feel sorry for me! We’re good!”

And yet just when you were wondering how much blearier things might become, DeBarge planted himself behind his keyboard at center stage and offered up a pair of tunes — first “All This Love,” then “I Like It” — that felt totally snapped-down, as though they were beamed in from some other show. “I Like It” was almost scarily intense, DeBarge’s eyes flashing with the kind of purpose he’d seemed incapable of earlier in the evening; DJ Quik looked on, seemingly impressed.

After that song DeBarge hopped into a throng of front-row fans who more or less tackled the singer with hugs. Then he clambered back onstage and apologized again, promising, “It’ll be greater later,” before he left for good.


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--Mikael Wood