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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Not-So-Quiet Storm Blasts Into Town : Anita Baker's High-Decibel Show Pushes Aside Subtlety

December 29, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Maybe Anita Baker is tired of being known as the queen of that stylish but sedate "quiet storm" radio format.

Maybe she spent too much time watching MTV during her four-year break from concerts and became enthralled with the thunderous sonic assault of Metallica.

Or maybe someone just forgot to turn down the volume Tuesday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

It's hard to figure.

Baker is one of the most acclaimed figures in contemporary pop, a seven-time Grammy winner whose vocals generally reflect the taste and restraint that is often missing from the music of such young vocal overkillers as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

So what happened in the opening show of Baker's much-anticipated, four-night Amphitheatre engagement?

Baker and crew gave the star-studded audience--including Natalie Cole and Magic Johnson--a show so excruciatingly loud that it neutralized almost all the subtlety and character that gives her music such individuality and heart.

If you weren't familiar with the songs, you would've had trouble making out more than a few words, not to mention the intended emotion. You couldn't tell whether Baker was singing a sad song or a happy one.

This kind of high-decibel blast isn't unusual at rock concerts, where the acts and audiences are willing to sacrifice nuances for intensity and aggression. Let's face it--you don't have to hear every word of a Nine Inch Nails show to know that Trent Reznor is one angry guy.

But phrasing is at the heart of Baker's artistry, which combines elements of pop, jazz, R&B and gospel in a graceful package. The idea on stage should be to showcase that phrasing, not obliterate it. Baker wasn't drowned out just by the seven-piece band, but also often by the three backup singers. This is the background punctuation you employ when you are trying to cover up vocal weaknesses, not celebrate strengths.

You could sense what was missing in the few times that things were toned down--notably a strikingly sensual version of Rodgers & Hart's "My Funny Valentine," with George Duke sitting in on piano for the number.

Baker's failure to establish that intimacy more often, on material old and new, was all the more disappointing because she has evolved into such a winning performer.

Despite all her acclaim, Baker exhibited no trace of an aloof diva as she came on stage to a standing ovation, following a brief opening routine by comedian Terry Hodges. She has a quick, disarming smile and enjoys interacting with the crowd, whether stepping down front to shake hands or throwing in quick asides at the microphone.

As she sang, Baker, wearing a black mini-dress, moved her entire body on upbeat songs so constantly--swinging her arms above her head and executing quick dance steps--that it appeared she was using her time on stage for some aerobic workouts.

Most engaging of all was when she let her hair down with salutes to two surprising vocal influences. Rather than Aretha Franklin or Sarah Vaughan, the influences cited most often by critics over the years, Baker donned the appropriate wigs and served up snippets of fireball Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" and the youthful Diana Ross' "Stop! In the Name of Love."

Mostly, however, on this night "quiet storm" gave way to a thunderbolt, and it wasn't pretty. At least Baker and crew have two more chances at the Amphitheatre to get it right.

* \o7 Anita Baker plays Friday at 8:15 p.m. and Saturday at 10 p.m. at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. Friday sold out, Saturday $55-$100. (818) 980-9421.\f7

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