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Pop Weekend : It Was Jackson's Concert but Day Who Stole Show

August 15, 1988|PAUL GREIN

Freddie Jackson was the main attraction at the "Superfest" R&B concert Saturday at the Forum, but Morris Day stole the show.

In fact, Day--Prince's swaggering rival in "Purple Rain"--seemed to be doing a dry parody of a romantic R&B star like Jackson. His send-up of a dapper Casanova--complete with a four-step seduction plan--was basically an exaggerated version of Jackson's lady-killer performance.

Playing a smooth-talking cad, Day got a big laugh when he intoned with false sincerity, "I'd like to talk to you about one of my favorite subjects . . . me."

That remark wasn't much more self-enamored than Jackson's telling a young lady that she's come to the right place if she wants "an awesome lover."

Only Jackson wasn't playing for laughs.

While Day tests the boundaries of contemporary R&B, Jackson falls comfortably within those boundaries. He's a good, solid singer and has an easy rapport with an audience but is utterly conventional. For all his success in the last three years--he's about to land his seventh No. 1 R&B hit--he continues to be regarded by many as a poor man's Luther Vandross. That's because Jackson mines the same territory as Vandross--romantic R&B ballads--but does so without the same class, sophistication and wit.

Jackson has some attractive songs, such as the courtly ballad "You Are My Lady" and the warm, melodic invitation "Jam Tonight." The husky-voiced New Yorker deserves credit for presenting a strong, masculine image and for refusing to bleach out the soulfulness of his music in a bid to attract more pop air play. But there's not much inspiration or originality in his work. He's the Alabama or the Air Supply of R&B: His stats are more impressive than his music.

By contrast, Day's witty, lighthearted set was a marvelous mix of music, humor, personality and theater. The Minneapolis native performed "Jungle Love" and "The Bird," the Time's hits from "Purple Rain," as well as his recent solo releases, including the sexy "Fishnet." Many of those songs are closer in spirit to pop-rock than they are to traditional R&B, which may explain why Day was received coolly by an audience drawn largely by mainstream R&B favorites like Jackson, the Whispers and Gladys Knight & the Pips. It's also possible that Day's dry, tongue-in-cheek humor was too hip for the room.

Both the Whispers and Knight & the Pips are coming off No. 1 R&B hits. The Whispers epitomize the suave, classy male vocal group that has long been a staple of R&B. They combine the smooth harmonizing of the Mills Brothers with the snappy choreography of the Temptations and have updated that classic style for '80s tastes with dance hits like the breezy "And the Beat Goes On" and last year's propulsive "Rock Steady."

It's heartening that the group, formed in Los Angeles in 1964, is keeping the male vocal group tradition alive. It is Knight & the Pips' greater achievement that they have come to transcend all genres and idioms. The group, remains totally contemporary--27 years after its first Top-10 hit.

Newcomer Miki Howard opened the show with a brief set that featured her recent R&B hit "That's What Love Is." The Chicago native, formerly the leader of the group Side Effect, demonstrated why she has become one of the top new female stars in R&B.

The Superfest tour is staged annually by Budweiser. If you didn't know that going into the show, you surely did by the time it was over. A sign hawking the brewer ran the length of the stage, and two more signs and two truck-size replicas of beer cans hung above the stage, where they remained illuminated through all the performances. And if you missed all that, 13 (count 'em) "This Bud's for You" jingles were piped into the hall between acts.

It was enough to make you want to bring back Prohibition.

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