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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Houston Keeps Her Guard Up


CERRITOS — Given her intimate surroundings Wednesday night, Whitney Houston could have stooped to conquer.

Instead, she spent her concert at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts swooping and soaring to overwhelm.

Houston didn't concern herself with establishing a mood of closeness with homey chatter or one-to-one repartee with her fans. Instead, the technically impressive but emotionally distant Houston did her usual thing, choosing to be Olympian rather than drawing near to the 1,710 people who watched her concert in-the-round.

Those closest to her were just 12 feet or so below her; if Houston had any acquaintances in the balconies, she could easily have hailed them and carried on a conversation, given the theater's cozy layout. (Having opened her Southern California swing in the vastness of the Hollywood Bowl, Houston will finish it with sold-out shows at Cerritos, tonight and Saturday.)

Routine greetings and adieus were all the contact Houston cared to make. She almost never ventured to the stage apron, preferring to maintain a buffer rather than move to an exposed spot where a fan might be encouraged to step forward.

That was in marked contrast to the approach that gregarious pop-R & B stars such as Luther Vandross and Gladys Knight have taken in shows at the comparably intimate Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim.

Houston wasn't looking to reach out and touch anybody, and nobody in the crowd dared make the first step.

One fan did have the gumption to shout something at Houston while she paused for a sip of throat-soothing hot tea before a medley of ballads. She swiveled in her chair, bemused, but not wrathful (Houston evidently has learned a lesson from a recent episode in Miami, when her haughtiness toward a fan earned her a cascade of boos and a heap of bad publicity).

"He said, 'I'm hotter than that tea,' " Houston repeated for the benefit of those who hadn't heard what had been shouted. Instead of getting into some interesting banter and seeing where the moment would lead, Houston lightly but primly put an end to any nonsense by playing the Bobby Brown card. "My husband is here," she warned Mr. Hotter Than Tea, "better be good."

Musically, Houston manages to be simultaneously awe-inspiring and dismayingly bland.

There's no question that she has a rare gift--a voice of piercing force and clarity, which she wields with great concentration and control. But the voice is all you get.

At 30, Houston is a grown-up now, but she still hasn't learned to pick songs with resonance of their own. Instead, she goes for formulaic vehicles that show off a technical authority she wears like armor.

The obligatory set-closer, "I Will Always Love You," managed to convey a sense of titanic determination with its repeated, storm-the-ramparts chorus, but few other songs in the 80-minute set had much of an expressive aura.

Houston didn't seem transported by the act of performing or by the songs themselves, and she never created the illusion that she was singing feelings rather than notes. There's something guarded about her, a reserve that would probably remain if she sang in a piano bar.

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