There was another robbery in Los Angeles on Thursday night: Anita Baker stole the show from headliner Luther Vandross at the Sports Arena. And she made off with quite a bundle, thanks to a marvelously staged performance that clinched her status as one of the most prized vocalists to emerge in the '80s.
But Baker had an unlikely accomplice in this heist: Vandross himself, who turned in a flat, poorly paced show that made it easy for Baker to shine.
Vandross showed a lot of guts in booking the red-hot Baker as the opening act on his nationwide tour. Following her on stage would be a tall order for any performer. Vandross has the talent to do it, but Thursday he didn't seem to have the will. It was as if he knew he would be upstaged and felt demoralized. Rather than rising to the challenge, he fell further behind.
Part of the problem is that Vandross' show was bogged down with ballads. Slow, romantic songs are the New York-based singer's specialty, but too many in a row can bring an audience's energy level so far down that a performer can't bring it up again.
That's exactly what happened to Vandross. After nearly an hour of intense, drawn-out ballads, he announced that it was time to "party," but by that point few were in the mood. Even the sizzling "Stop to Love" failed to stir the crowd. There was no call for an encore.
Vandross should punctuate the program with stylish, up-tempo songs like "Give Me the Reason" and "Bad Boy," which he inexplicably omitted on Thursday. Vandross also needs to freshen the look of his show. He was joined on about half the songs by three backup singers whose carefully synchronized movements and hand gestures seemed robotic and mannered. In moments like this, the show seemed hopelessly dated--almost like a parody of an R&B; show.
There were occasional glimmers of excellence. Vandross' brooding, volcanic interpretation of the Bacharach-David classic "A House Is Not a Home" remains a standout, as does a muscular, intense version of Leon Russell's "Superstar." Vandross was joined by dancer/singer Gregory Hines on their silky hit duet "There's Nothing Better Than Love."
By contrast, Baker did almost everything right in her most important local show to date. She covered a wide range of material and moods, from pop and soul to jazz and blues. She even flirted with rock rhythms on a bold, assertive reading of Michael Jackson's "Another Part of Me."
The highlight of her show was "Watch Your Step," a feisty number from her smash 1986 album "Rapture." The song was staged as a "duet" with saxophone player Everette Harp: Baker would sing one line and Harp would blow an angry reply. It was like watching a passionate lover's quarrel. The riveting performance set off almost palpable sparks.
These dynamic pieces helped to balance the classy ballads that dominated Baker's set. She performed a bluesy version of the Billie Holiday classic "God Bless the Child" and a sultry reading of her own smash "Sweet Love."
Baker's only misstep was leaving the stage near the end of her show to allow the Perri Sisters, an R&B; quartet that had backed her on one song, to do a number of their own. Their spot was fine, but broke the momentum of Baker's performance. For this she left out "Rapture"?
Baker's warm, friendly manner added intimacy to the show. She may have been playing a cavernous arena, but she made it seem as cozy as a late-night supper for two. The lady is a star.
Vandross and Baker never appeared on stage together, which is a shame. A duet or two by these supremely classy performers--both at the peak of their careers--would be an unforgettable moment. The singers, reportedly clashing on this tour, should put aside whatever differences are keeping them apart and think of their fans.
The four-night engagement concludes with shows tonight and Monday.