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It Takes Talent to Tango

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two thoughts for KIIS-FM should it make Saturday’s nine-hour, station-sponsored Wango Tango pop festival at Edison International Field of Anaheim an annual event:

Don’t repeat the hype. In trumpeting this interesting but far from epic assemblage of talent as “the event of a lifetime” and a legitimate heir to Woodstock and Live Aid (among other fatuous boasts), the station merely helped condition its mainly young audience to regard insincerity, falsehood and cynicism as norms of public life. Barnum would have blushed. But Barnum would have found a way to fill the joint instead of drawing perhaps 80% of capacity, despite numerous giveaways and a nice, reasonable $25 price for most seats.

But do repeat the overall quality and variety that highlighted this dozen-act bill. This was a nice day of music, even though it had lots of potential for disappointment:

* Top-billed Mariah Carey stopped by for only a cup of tea (she sipped it through a straw between the two numbers she sang, hoping to ease a scratchy throat).

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* Will Smith provided a celebrity turn, not a musical one, chatting about his hit song, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It,” instead of trying to perform it freestyle, as an instinctive rapper would have (the movie star could have slain the adoring house with just a passable attempt).

* Olivia Newton-John, the focal point for the show’s charity angle in aiding the fight against breast cancer, was given too little time, and what little she did have came at the wrong time: She sang her lone number, “I Honestly Love You,” for a restless, late-afternoon crowd more interested in dinner than a plaintive, inward ballad.

Balancing those letdowns was the warmth and sincerity Carey brought to her two songs, set to canned backing tracks. Even if her voice was a little grainy for this, her first concert appearance in Southern California in nearly five years, it was a strong, full-bodied performance that made the pop-operatic sweep and over-the-top sentiment of “Hero” and “My All” believable and human. It made one wish she would put more stock in touring (Carey played a few overseas dates early this year, but she told the Wango crowd that she will make her first movie instead of touring the U.S.).

Carey’s big voice and videogenic looks may have sold nearly 90 million records this decade, but music fans’ most lasting memories usually come from the concerts of the acts they love. She should invest some time and effort in creating those memories.

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Most of the day’s marquee names sprinted through their 20- to 30-minute sets with aplomb.

Backed by a grand 18-piece band (including actor Andy Garcia as guest bongo player), Gloria Estefan rode cascades of rhythm in a half-hour that provided the day’s only satisfying shot of dance music.

Estefan isn’t a commanding singer, but she was an enthusiastic, shimmying focus for driving salsa numbers like “Oye” and “Conga,” and canny Latinized pop-disco. The short set (interrupted by a needless premature exit designed to milk applause for an already programmed encore) kept the beat foremost and left no time for her less appealing side as a sappy pop balladeer.

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By now it’s clear that Paula Cole is a spotlight stealer. Her half-hour onstage was a riveting, crowd-igniting fulfillment of a drama-queen’s dream.

For most of her set, Cole cannily stripped down her rock backing trio to a semi-acoustic dynamic with light percussion--not the expected maneuver in a stadium. It paid off by showcasing her daring, high-impact vocal flights, delivered while she played to the big-screen video camera with expressions fraught with angst and effort.

Cole repeatedly propelled herself around the stage, communicating with violent, puppet-like modern-dance moves. Overwrought, yes. But one had to be impressed by this complete package of tuneful songs, a striking voice and charged movement.

Hootie & the Blowfish were a pleasant surprise. Unimpressive two years ago at Irvine Meadows, the South Carolina pop-rock-soul band seemed to benefit from cabin fever: The group had just finished six weeks of studio work on its third album.

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Though it went unspoken, Hootie’s set was keyed by healthy outrage at the recent racist abomination in Texas. The band opened with “Drowning,” a lament of hatred that, tame on album, crackled with urgency thanks to a charged vocal by Darius Rucker. (Cole similarly took a pertinent song, “Hitler’s Brothers,” to a higher level, apparently drawing on her revulsion at recent events.)

Previously prone to sameness with his chesty, grainy delivery, Rucker sang with a richer, more pliant voice, and his performance was more engaged than on Hootie’s last Orange County stop. The band played some of its new material, including an instantly winning number that combined crashing rock with fine, Byrds-like harmonies.

A bar band that hit the jackpot with a comfortable, undemanding, 10-million-selling debut album, “Cracked Rearview,” Hootie slipped to 2.5 million (according to Soundscan) with its second release, “Fairweather Johnson.” Its Wango Tango set suggested the band has resolved to go all-out to sustain itself as a major act.

Life’s suddenness and unpredictability is the core theme of “The Carnival,” Wyclef Jean’s successful album apart from his hit pop-rap act, the Fugees. Jean’s cold-then-hot set could have used the sudden impact of which he sings. He dithered through half of his 25-minute allotment, unpersuaded that the audience was sufficiently warmed up, before getting on track with his warmly wafting folk-pop-R & B hit, “Gone Till November.” He moved on to a good, toaster-style rap-reggae reading of the Beatles’ “Michelle,” and a series of standard, but highly effective, audience-participation rap maneuvers to close. Maybe beginning at the end would help.

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Vonda Shepard, a veteran of L.A. coffeehouses, didn’t do half badly for a sensitive singer-songwriter playing way out of position in the middle of a baseball stadium’s outfield. Shepard got her shot on the coattails of “Ally McBeal,” the hit TV series that features her music. Her bright, determined performance of the show’s anthem, “Searchin’ My Soul,” lifted the crowd she had briefly lost with a brave but ill-considered broad-daylight attempt to sneak in one of her introspective ballads.

Tom Jones put the Tango in the Wango--or at least the waltz, as he stepped his way daintily through “What’s New Pussycat?” It was a lighthearted, savvy bit of stagecraft typical of Jones’ delightful 20-minute lark before the early arrivers. With funny, out-sized gestures and mock-dramatic matador moves, he found the humor in “Pussycat” and “Delilah.” But his voice, and a well-honed backing ensemble, did musical justice to everything.

Jones’ peak moments included a sizzling, hot-soul take on Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and a cranking rock blitz through Lenny Kravitz’s Hendrixophile hit, “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” Keyed by wild guitar riffs that might have pleased Ted Nugent (coiner of the name “Wango Tango,” a euphemism for tireless sex in his 1980 hit of the same name), it gave the remodeled stadium a proper rock ‘n’ roll baptism.

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As the long day’s first major act, Jones hit the equivalent of a leadoff home run.

If Meredith Brooks is as strong-willed as her career-making hit, “Bitch,” professes, she should use that force of personality to whip her four-man band out of the lethargic lock-step it repeatedly fell into. Brooks sang capably, but her tone and phrasing carried lots of reminders of trumpety Alanis Morrissette and drawling Sheryl Crow, and her woman-with-attitude stance was borrowed from and overshadowed by Chrissie Hynde. The dubious “Bitch” celebrates women’s right to mystify and confuse men by donning different moods, roles and personalities like so many garments. Given how scattered and malleable Brooks’ musical personality appears to be, it’s no wonder.

The day’s undercard of three youthful, dance-oriented acts performing to canned tracks turned up a potentially worthy disco queen in Amber, a zaftig, ponytailed Dutchwoman with catchy material and a strong, husky but piercing voice.

‘N Sync, a five-man team of Boyz II Men emulators, might as well be called “Lip Sync.” Either that, or their delivery of studio-perfect, resonant harmonies while running and jumping all over the stage means that they have the lung capacity of world-class distance runners.

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Lip-syncing should never be an option, but All Saints made one wonder. Physically endowed but vocally skimpy, the female foursome from England offered creaky singing and blocky, unintentionally silly swivel-hip choreography.


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