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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Luis Miguel Holds Romantic Court


If there were any doubts about the present state of the Latino romantic ballad, Luis Miguel skillfully removed them Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre: The '90s are his decade, and he dictates the creative pace and leads the pack.

In his first of four sold-out shows (a record for Latin American singers at the venue), the former child prodigy--now 23--appeared to be at his peak with the kind of elaborate presentation usually reserved for living legends in their 70s, not for a young sex symbol. It was much more than just a showcase for his new, ninth album, "Aries."

The collection is an impressive follow-up to his landmark bolero recording "Romance"--in itself a hard act to follow--that sold 5 million copies worldwide. But with the crowd singing along, the Mexican singer also gave a comprehensive recap of his 14-year career, most of the material coming from his fruitful collaboration with noted producer Juan Carlos Calderon.

The 30-song set included his whole musical spectrum: sensual, standard ballads that he decorated with jazzy scat-singing (something unusual in this area of Latin music), powerful R&B sounds, funky bass lines and the usual love texts, the only standard thing in Luis Miguel's music.

Dressed in black and supported by a tight eight-piece band (including a horn section featuring saxophonist Jeff Nathanson, who stole the show several times) plus three female background vocalists, Miguel opened with a bilingual rendition of his hit "America," which recently earned an MTV award for best Latin Video of the Year. Luis Miguel--those are his two first names, and he doesn't use his last name--showed that he has learned enough to lead the pack and teach others how to sell millions of records and that it's possible to please the masses without just copying previous artists.

Both the stage set itself and the crowd's boisterous but raptly attentive mood matched Luis Miguel's aesthetic statement. There were lights and smoke, but the focus was on the music all along--he didn't even speak to the fans until the sixth song, and when he did he was brief and seemed anxious to return to performing. Despite his sexy image, there were no desperate teen-age girls rushing onstage--he even sometimes refused to accept flowers offered by female fans.

Just when the show seemed about to end, the back curtains onstage unexpectedly opened and there was the 30-member Hollywood String Ensemble, which backed the singer on the "Romance" album. That was the undisputed highlight of the show, a moving rendition of beautiful boleros merging both the traditional spirit and today's technical possibilities, an irresistible blend that could only be done by someone as unique as Luis Miguel.

He may at times be cold and arrogant, but, after this nearly flawless performance, no one can accuse him of not doing his job. He is clearly Latin American's most gifted and ambitious artist in the arena of romantic songs, and, despite his already huge success, this might be only the prelude for his biggest work yet.

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