Pop Music Reviews : The Quiet Storm of Anita Baker : Pop: A singer who defies categorizing offers a night of steaming balladry.

"I love to see folks play kissy-face," Anita Baker told some understandably amorous folks in the front row at her Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre show on Sunday.

Outside the confines of the concert hall, of course, kissy-face isn't all people play while listening to Baker. Frank Sinatra no doubt holds the record as the man who single-handedly did the most to help spur the baby boom, but Baker might be the closest we have to a modern-day equivalent. There were a lot of patrons lined up to use the pay phones to check in with the sitters at home.

This deservedly heralded contralto is--in some cases literally--the poster woman for the "quiet storm" radio format, personifying all that that term would represent: seemingly a private person, most assuredly a dignified one, but someone who lets forth with deep-felt bursts of emotion and perhaps sexuality in appropriate moments. (Much like her largely 30-ish and up fans consider themselves quiet stormers as well, surely: What responsibility-addled executive or homemaker wouldn't want to be thought of as a latent raging torrent?)

Had it been coined earlier, that format could have been home to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan or Nancy Wilson, of course. Baker's sound is very much "black," and quite at home on modern R&B; stations, but its debt is more to the black tradition of jazz singing than any strain currently dominating the charts. Her appeal is as multiracial as anyone's, and stretches across the board from easy listeners to funk fans, giving cynics occasion to celebrate the infrequent triumph of voice over formatting.

If there's a limitation to this enormously popular approach, it's that most of her material is cautiously limited to lightly steaming balladry--never extremely quiet, and likewise never excessively stormy. She rarely ventures outside the eye of that hurricane.

At Sunday's Irvine show, this self-imposed limitation was never much of a problem, as Baker's surprisingly radiant persona--surprising, that is, given her serious look in photographs and videos--shone light into the less illuminated corners of her act.

She indulged her fans with enviable patience, bantering freely with the usual yellers in the crowd ("I'm taken," she announced, "but a girl always likes to be asked.") and accepting flowers, offering kisses and clasping hands down front--all the while never missing a perfect note--until security finally had to escort the dozens of well-wishers away.

She also showed unusual charity in mentioning the names of songwriters and went out of her way to explain the governing emotions behind the songs, adding a welcome dimension of depth to some seemingly simple love songs.

And her elegant physical presence--while steering clear of overt sexuality and well short of flashiness--should not be underestimated, bold body language bespeaking confidence, rhythm and sure sensuality.

"I like to see a singer get into it like that--not like Whitney Houston," said audience member Tangula Maye of Temecula, an appreciative fan who owns Baker's 5-million-selling 1986 breakthrough album "Rapture" in LP, cassette and CD.

Maye was one of many Baker aficionados who expressed mixed feelings about the singer's new album, "Compositions," which finds Baker moving even more in a strict jazz ballad direction and leaving behind the sort of songs with the funky slap bass that closed the concert. "That (jazz) stuff is OK for the bedroom, but too mellow for a concert," Maye suggested.

In any case, the concert no doubt continued in plenty of bedrooms with scant interruption post-show; it was Date Night for Young Marrieds in Irvine Sunday. Baker brings her show to San Diego State University's Open Air Theatre tonight, and to the Greek Theatre on Sept. 19-20 and 22-23.

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