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POP MUSIC REVIEW

There's Nothing Better Than Him

September 03, 1997|CONNIE JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What Muhammad Ali was to boxing, Luther Vandross is to R&B / pop. There simply is no one else in his league. On Monday at the Hollywood Bowl, his confidence verged on cockiness as he swore to give the crowd "something you ain't gonna get nowhere else."

But it's not bragging if you can back it up, as the saying goes, and Vandross' promise was no idle boast. What other singers struggle to convey, Vandross dispatches with ease. For his less accomplished peers in the business, he should just write up his own instructional manual: How to Captivate an Audience.

Vandross' winning formula is based on the sheer joy he seems to derive from singing. His voice is just so pretty that it clearly delights him as much as it does his fans.

He can take an old-school classic, such as the Friends of Distinction's "Goin' in Circles," and turn it upside down and basically reinvent it. He can do the same with his own hits, such as "Never Too Much," which also was enriched by Vandross' fresh approach at the Bowl.

An appearance by Gregory Hines on "There's Nothing Better Than Love" was a nice surprise. On that duet, Hines' laid-back, mellow style perfectly complemented Vandross. No one can vocally compete him with him, since Vandross is easily the premier male R&B singer of his generation. He just seems to hear music differently from most other singers, and the way he builds upon and embellishes a song's lyrics is a rare gift.

*

Vandross' entire show was basically a textbook example of showmanship. While his records are great, they only hint at his talent and depth. A record tells you nothing about his ability to improvise and expand upon a song so that its entire message is more poignant, moving or vibrant. If you're a fan of his and you've never seen him live, you just haven't had the full Vandross experience.

Vanessa Williams' lack of experience as a concert entertainer was evident on Monday. As Vandross' opening act, the lithe and beautiful singer--performing for the first time in Los Angeles--was stiff and distant on her first few songs. Her mind seemed a million miles away as she sang rather colorless versions of "The Comfort Zone" and "Colors of the Wind."

Midway through her set, Williams' icy mood finally thawed. On the Latin-flavored "Constantly" and "Betcha Never," Williams was relaxed and commanding--and her wonderful, exuberant dancing on the latter song was an indication of why her Broadway stint in the musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman" was such a success.

When Williams performs songs that match her sophistication and complexity, she shines. Her version of the sexy, attitude-laced "Peel Me a Grape" probably would have earned her applause from no less a diva than Eartha Kitt. While Williams is a delight to watch and listen to, the artist she is today is only a faint glimmer of the one she seems destined to become.

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