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Three-Ring Circus From Soul II Soul


The glib hipster Jazzie B--producer, composer, arranger and rapper for the black English group Soul II Soul, as well as its leader and guru--was more like a ringmaster on Friday, presiding over a three-ring musical circus at the Universal Amphitheatre.

The stage was often so packed with musicians and dancers that you didn't know who or what to focus on: strings, a three-man horn unit and a blaring, startlingly precise rhythm section accompanied a quartet of backup singers who in turn supported four female lead singers and the occasional chanting and chattering of Jazzie B.

Soul II Soul played funky dance music in that chaotic, cluttered stage environment, highlighted by colorful backdrops, clouds of smoke and flashing lights--a lively re-creation of the audio-visual assaults that characterized '70s discos.

To put the audience in the mood for what was to come, the show opened with a simulated dance-club segment and fashion show, with dancers/models strutting to taped music.

For those who like loping dance music--as most of the crowd that nearly filled the theater presumably did--Soul II Soul's show was pure ecstasy, a hip-shaking, toe-tapping feast.

The rhythm section laid down such a strong, relentless beat that it was often difficult to pay attention to the melodies and the vocals. There was enough variety in this music to counter the common claim that dance music is shallow and repetitive.

Soul II Soul's music is an ingeniously danceable mix of assorted elements, such as James Brown-style funk, the orchestral disco sound of Barry White, mainstream jazz and the R&B vocal style popularized by Motown in the '60s.

When the group's first album, "Keep on Movin'," came out last year, featuring singles such as the title song and "Back to Life," it was dazzlingly different--like nothing else on the market at the time.

It didn't matter that at times Jazzie B was on his soap box, spewing out fortune-cookie philosophy. You simply tuned in the great grooves and tuned out such mutterings as "A happy face, a thumping bass, for a loving race."

Jazzie B is a likeable eccentric who walks with a cane, wears shades and has his dreadlocks done up in a rooster-like do.

On Friday, he was occasionally rapping and philosophizing, preaching positivism, love, determination and dedication. He seemed to be trying to enshroud the music with the mantle of nobility and importance--trying to make it seem like more than it really is. But audience didn't seem to let his prattle get in the way of savoring those scintillating grooves.

As good as most of the show was, Soul II Soul isn't progressing. The material on Soul II Soul's second album, "1990--a New Decade"--is a disappointment.

Jazzie B and company seemed fresh out of fresh ideas. They recycled some of the best parts of the first album, but did a lousy job of disguising the rehashed material. Also, none of the lead singers seemed to be in a league with Caron Wheeler, whose exceptionally soulful vocals were among the highlights of the first album. Wheeler, who's gone solo, is absent from the new album--and sorely missed.

Though singers like Victoria Wilson-James and Marcia Lewis don't shine on that second album, in concert all verged on outstanding--giving the kind of dynamic, powerful vocal performances that would have given the album a badly needed boost.

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