Motown Hits Miss Mark

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No one really expects oldies acts to bring anything spontaneous, challenging or inventive to the table. But the Commodores--at a Saturday concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, the first of a two-night stand with Mary Wilson of the Supremes--left absolutely nothing to chance by playing all of their live album, nothing but the live album, and sequencing the songs exactly as found on the album.

Even the between-song banter of core members J.D. Nicholas, William "Wak" King and Walter "Clyde" Orange was repeated verbatim.

Astonishing.

The Commodores' mix of power ballads and funky dance tracks helped sell more than 60 million records in the '70s and '80s. But the veteran pop/R&B; group from Tuskegee, Ala., has been an irrelevant, harmless force in the '90s, a fact reinforced throughout a 90-minute performance defined by stale material and scripted, slick showmanship.

Interestingly, more than half of the numbers performed Saturday were originally written and sung by Lionel Richie, who left the Commodores to pursue a solo career in 1983. Relying so heavily on his material illustrates just how dried-up the group's creative juices were in the post-Richie era.

(And beware: The two-volume "Commodores Hits," released in 1992 on the Commodores' own label, is not the real deal. Instead of the original Motown versions featuring Richie on such hits as "Machine Gun," "Slippery When Wet," "Easy" and "Brick House," these are re-recorded versions without Richie's vocals.)

So what are we to make of the Commodores, Version '98?

The nine-member unit is simply cashing in on the latest nostalgia craze. New material? Why bother when you've got a trunkload of hits and enough razzle-dazzle to keep the audience mildly amused?

Better suited to Vegas or perhaps a hockey arena, the group offers layers of pyrotechnics (yes, smoke machines and fireworks are back!) and annoying, oh-so-scripted cliches ("Is every-bod-ee hap-eee? Everybody say 'Yeah!' ").

Like the Commodores, Mary Wilson is not a significant player in today's game. A founding member of the Supremes, the soulful singer continues to resurrect classics from the most famous girl group in pop history. (Between 1964 and 1977, the Supremes scored 12 No. 1 hits, and they eventually landed 33 songs in the Top 40.) But unlike the evening's headliners, Wilson--who was backed by three vocalists and an eight-piece band--performs with a liberating edge that breathes new life into familiar fare.

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After stormy personnel changes within the group and a tumultuous relationship with Diana Ross, Wilson, now 54, appears to have claimed for herself such gems as "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Baby Love," "You Can't Hurry Love" and "Back in My Arms Again." These and other selections soared in her opening, hourlong set.

Even one of her rare solo numbers was supreme. Showing a spunkier side of Wilson's personality, "Don't Get Mad, Get Even" offered a biting, in-your-face salvo aimed at those driven by ego and greed.

Take that, Miss Ross.

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