Peabo Bryson looks mighty relaxed on his album covers, lounging around in various states of serene unflappability. And while his stage manner at the Celebrity Theatre on Friday was equally effortless, Bryson sang like a human volcano. A suave, impeccably controlled volcano, mind you, but a vocal powerhouse nonetheless. But then he could scarcely have been less without being overshadowed by Regina Belle's dauntingly good preceding set.
Bryson romanced his melodies--so much so that female fans were swooning in the front rows--but he and his nine-piece band also lent a muscle and heightened emotion to his 10-song set, which included "Reaching for the Sky," "I'm So Into You" and an effective cover of Al Wilson's "Show and Tell."
Even a shriveled chestnut like "The Way We Were" was reclaimed by the sheer beauty and power of his voice. Given a stronger emotional base in "If Ever You're in My Arms Again" his masterful turns of phrase suggested that he might become a soul Sinatra.
But if a score were being kept, Belle's opening set may have edged out Bryson's. During a "Diva Medley" salute to other singers, Belle tackled Aretha Franklin's rendition of "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," and the singers are not without similarities.
Belle has the sass and vocal command of the young Aretha, if not entirely her depth of feeling, and she manages a mean imitation of Anita Baker and Gladys Knight.
Outside the medley, Belle's nimble vocals were her own. She finessed each plaintive note of "Make It Like It Was" from her recent "Stay With Me" album. The sultry current No. 1 single "Baby Come to Me" found her ranging from a throaty, low register notes to precise falsetto jumps.
Her finest moments came on "All I Want Is Forever," where she dueted with bassist-bandleader Christopher Walker. Their soulful exchanges became increasingly steamy as they approached each other on the stage, until they entwined in a slow dance while still singing over each other's shoulder. The scene then turned comic when one of Belle's female backup singers interceded as a third party. What might merely have been a cute bit of scripted stage banter grew into something more, as the other singers spurred Belle to embellish each syllable into a crafted work of art. There wasn't much more one could ask for.
But there was something : For all the tremendous control Belle and Bryson exercised, it could not have hurt to see them relinquish that control once in a while. Even more than the often-rigid, machine-dictated instrumentation, what seems to separate modern R&B; music from its legendary '60s counterpart is the reticence of contemporary singers to let the music carry them away.
While the older soul music certainly had its conventions and contrivances, Otis Redding, Irma Thomas and others also had a gospel singer's willingness to be moved by the spirit, so their performances often flew with a genuine abandon. While Bryson and Bell were never less than splendid Friday, one suspected that their show could have been doubly good if they had loosened up more.
Opening act After 7 (co-opener Miles Jaye dropped out because of illness) had a hot, crafty dance number in "Sayonara," but the vocal sparks of brothers Kevon and Melvin Edmonds and Keith Mitchell were otherwise canceled out by mediocre material and an abrasive sound mix.