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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Michael Smith Borrows a Lot but Pays Off

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who stages as lavish a concert as Michael W. Smith did Saturday night at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center probably doesn’t have to worry about borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

But Smith, the biggest male star in Christian pop, did borrow substantially from some of his famous secular brethren in a show abetted by a fine seven-man band and striking lighting effects.

A chorus of “na na na’s” in “Love Crusade” sounded like something out of Bryan Adams; “How Long Will Be Too Long” could have been a yearning anthem from the Jackson Browne archive. A gurgling Latin-funk hybrid echoed Robert Palmer, and the jaunty, decidedly Beatlesque “For You” was a stroll down Penny Lane. When it was time for uplift at the end, Smith turned to African chants and rhythms, much as Peter Gabriel climaxes his shows with “In Your Eyes.”

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Whether these appropriations leave Smith in violation of the Sinai Top Ten is a matter for a higher authority to judge. But it certainly makes him a viable candidate for the Billboard Top 40, where it is considered no sin to covet thy neighbor’s hooks.

Like Browne or Phil Collins, Smith has a voice that isn’t stunning, but carries an easy, tuneful appeal. It’s a little thin and nasal, and mildly husky as well--a combination that could have become grating over the course of a two-hour concert, but somehow never did.

The handsome singer, who sported Don Johnson stubble and a quick-change wardrobe of Sonny Crockett duds, didn’t have anything to prove to an enraptured audience of about 5,000 fans, most of them teens or of college age. Before Smith arrived on stage, the hyped-up crowd was doing the Wave and roaring chants of “We love Jesus, how ‘bout you?” back and forth across the arena.

But Smith didn’t coast, instead turning in an energetic, hard-working and stylistically and emotionally varied set in which he frequently ventured from behind his keyboards to twist and shout. As for religious content, Smith avoided simplistic formulas like that preconcert yell. While his message songs were hardly incisive or adventurous, sticking with general expressions of longing or affirmation, at least they didn’t merely sermonize. Smith hardly spoke between songs, waiting until the end to dispense a statement of purpose that led into the schmaltzy but warm sing-along “Friends.”

Smith opened with some of his hardest rocking songs, stuff that was slickly played, but still carried some clout. The pacing wandered in the middle with a long stretch of piano ballads. Then Smith handed the show over to his rhythm guitarist, Mike E., for a couple of rap numbers that were utterly incongruous, though well-received. From there, he built back up to the obligatory joyful ending.

One other thing that Smith’s show had in common with a lot of his secular pop counterparts was a dismaying lack of confidence in the power of the unadorned human voice. Once again, we heard a small crew of backing singers sounding big enough at several junctures to populate a whole choir box. They either were blessed with superhumanly powerful voices, or outfitted with the latest in digital gear designed to erase any difference between the stage and the studio.

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The Christian rap trio DC Talk opened with a set featuring canned beats (not even a DJ to spin the grooves), and rhymes that didn’t get beyond sloganeering about Jesus (in favor) and racism (against). But the racially integrated group brought plenty of energy and a healthy sense of fun to its preaching, and Michael Tait showed off a good baritone singing voice to play off against Toby McKeehan’s less-than-trenchant rapping.

The contemporary Christian pop of Smith, Amy Grant and Sandi Patti typically draws a predominantly white crowd (like the one at the Bren Center), but Christian rap, like secular rap, could be a vehicle for bridging racial divides. Smith’s audience grooved happily to DC Talk, and brought the trio and its crew of dancers back for an encore.

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