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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Vandross: The Sheik of Shriek

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Luther Vandross, arguably the finest R&B; balladeer of his generation, resorts to up-tempo songs in concert only as a rare change of pace. He prefers achingly slow songs like “Any Love,” “Superstar” and “I Want to Stay the Night,” with his voice bouncing between the high and low registers, sensually bending notes with abandon, creating a sexually charged atmosphere that drives females in the audience to sighs and shrieks.

That was the scene at the Los Angeles Sports Arena Tuesday, as Vandross unleashed his usual blitzkrieg of ballads.

To some extent, a Vandross concert mirrors the battle of the sexes. For many men, his show is probably a bewildering experience. But Vandross clearly isn’t singing to them--and he makes no bones about it.

Vandross passionately crooned music to cuddle by--intimate, sultry songs that reflect the kind of male sensitivity that his female fans respond to. Women in the audience--mostly over 25--frequently shouted , “Tell it like it is,” as if they were “testifying” at a gospel concert. They seem to regard Vandross, who writes most of his music, as an ally, someone who understands them, perhaps even more than their own mates.

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Everything about a Vandross concert is geared to creating an air of romance--even the staging. Dripping with elegance, the set resembled the staircase of a grand ballroom, with the musicians and singers decked out in flashy evening attire clustered around it.

The problem is that there’s nothing challenging or even remotely daring about Vandross’ show. But don’t expect any changes: Vandross has found a formula that works and he sticks too it.

The least that Vandross could do, however, is upgrade his wardrobe. His jackets, smothered in gaudy sequins, make him look like a parody of a Vegas lounge singer.

The show, featuring the Sounds of Blackness, comedian Sinbad and singer Lisa Fischer, runs three hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions. Sure, you get your money’s worth, but it could use some streamlining. Vandross could drop a few songs and the long introduction of his musicians. The clumsy comedy bits could easily be eliminated too.

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Probably the most entertaining segment of the evening was comedian Sinbad’s set. You can tell from his timing, rhythm and some of his observations about life in the black community that he’s a student of the master: Richard Pryor.

Like Pryor at his peak as a stand-up comic in the ‘70s, Sinbad wrings humor out of the difference between men and women and between blacks and whites. When he was really rolling, he was spewing out hilarious one-liners at a machine-gun pace. In the last few years, he has matured dramatically as a comedian. His perceptions are much sharper than they used to be.

One of Vandross’ backup singers, Lisa Fischer, delivered a show-stopping number during his set. Her hit, “How Can I Ease the Pain,” is arguably the year’s best R&B; ballad. She’s good enough to merit her own half-hour.

The show opened with a short but stirring set from the Sounds of Blackness, a 15-member, gospel-oriented vocal ensemble featuring the Aretha Franklin-like wails of Ann Bennett-Nesby. This group daringly expands the gospel-group concept, embracing new jack swing, R&B; and African rhythms. Their songs, boasting a gospel fervor and broadened by these other elements, were consistently intriguing.

Vandross returns to the Sports Arena tonight and Friday, and plays the San Diego Sports Arena on Sunday.


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