"Let's do number eight," Anita Baker said during her show Thursday at the Greek Theatre, checking the song list on the piano and sending musicians scrambling to adjust their settings.
There was more of the same later on. "Let's do the one after 13." And finally, "Well, what have we got left?"
In a time when most pop shows--and especially soul concerts, with their big bands and choreography--are programmed tighter than one of the curls in Baker's hairdo, the spontaneous approach she took as she opened her four-night engagement was refreshing, to say the least.
It was also a little risky, leaving the safety of a sure-fire plotted build-up in order to respond to the impulses of the moment and shape the show as she went along. And if it did leave some lulls, the freshness--the liveness --that resulted was worth the loss.
Baker, of all people, doesn't have to take chances like that. After all, her position is secure as the hottest female R&B; arrival of the past couple of years (well, co -hottest with Whitney Houston around).
Baker's 1986 album, "Rapture," has become a million-seller, she picked up a couple of Grammys in April, and her four-night sell-out at the 6,100-seat Greek follows seven capacity shows at the 1,400-seat Beverly Theatre on her last visit. (She also plays Friday and next Saturday at San Diego State University and Sept. 13 at Irvine Meadows.)
But Baker showed no signs of wanting to play it safe. Besides monkeying with the song order, the diminutive Detroiter displayed a perky, quirky personality that contrasted sharply with her elegant appearance.
With her Billie Holiday hair and sophisticated gown, she looked like a '40s supper-club chanteuse. But as she chatted easily with the crowd, it was apparent that she is, as she put it, "a silly goose." Striking a stern opera-singer pose, she made fun of the idea of coming out for what she called, in solemn tones, "An Evening With Anita Baker."
Her small talk had none of the feel of the canned chatter offered by male soul stars Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross in their recent concerts, and her general sharpness and maturity are an attractive "adult" alternative to Houston's sparkly, vacant effervescence.
Musically, Baker's emphasis is on rich, romantic ballads with pronounced jazz shadings, and on stage she showed more vocal range within that format than she does on "Rapture." She moved from dusky tones to shining, glassy intonation; sometimes a full, rounded tone would suddenly sharpen and bite, and she showed reserves of the sheer power and bravado that get a crowd whooping.
Backed by a 10-man band and the L.A. vocal quartet Perri, Baker fleshed out the set with a little Dionne Warwick, a little Vandross (her version of "Stop for Love" suggested that the next album should go a little more up-tempo than the low-key "Rapture") and "God Bless the Child."
Her gospel roots emerged more and more toward the end, and it was noteworthy that one of the set's highlights--the mid-tempo gospel-rocker "Watch Your Step"--is a Baker composition. The show's only real flaw was the inconsistency of the material, but maybe she won't have to look very far to get that taken care of.
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for the Universal Amphitheatre's Oct. 6 bill of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Neville Brothers and Omar & the Howlers. . . . Prince has been added to the lineup at Friday's MTV Awards Show at the Universal Amphitheatre. He'll do two songs as he unveils his new band. . . . Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine will be at the Celebrity Theatre Oct. 16.