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Weekend Reviews | Pop Music Review

'Tango' Wangles Quality Despite Hype

Pop music review: It was no Woodstock or Live Aid. It was a nice, long day of music with Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Paula Cole and others.

June 15, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two thoughts for KIIS-FM should it make its nine-hour "Wango Tango" pop festival at Edison International Field of Anaheim an annual event:

Don't repeat the hype. In trumpeting this interesting but far from epic assemblage of talent as "the event of a lifetime" and an heir to Woodstock and Live Aid, the station merely helped condition its young audience to regard insincerity, falsehood and cynicism as norms of public life. Barnum would have blushed--but he would have found a way to fill the joint instead of drawing perhaps 80% of capacity.

But do repeat the overall quality and variety that highlighted Saturday's dozen-act bill. This was a nice day of music, even though it had lots of potential for disappointment:

* Top-billed Mariah Carey only stopped by for a cup of tea (she sipped it through a straw between the two numbers she sang, hoping to ease a scratchy throat).

* Will Smith provided a celebrity turn, not a musical one, chatting about his hit song, "Gettin' Jiggy Wit' It," instead of performing it.

* Olivia Newton-John, the focal point for the show's charity angle in aiding the fight against breast cancer, was given too little time, and what little she had came at the wrong time: She sang her lone number, "I Honestly Love You," for a restless, late-afternoon crowd more interested in dinner than a plaintive, inward ballad.

Balancing those letdowns were the warmth and sincerity Carey brought to her two songs, set to canned backing tracks. Even if her voice was a little grainy for her first concert appearance in Southern California in nearly five years, it was a strong, full-bodied performance that made the pop-operatic sweep and over-the-top sentiment of "Hero" and "My All" believable and human.

Most of the day's marquee names sprinted through their 20- to 30-minute sets with aplomb.

Backed by a grand 18-piece band, Gloria Estefan rode cascades of rhythm in a half-hour that provided the day's only satisfying shot of dance music and left no leeway for her less satisfying pop ballads.

By now it's clear that Paula Cole is a spotlight stealer; her performance was overheated, but that didn't mean it wasn't hot. Her half-hour onstage was a riveting, crowd-igniting fulfillment of a drama queen's dream, propelled by a complete package of tuneful songs, a striking voice and body-electric movement.

Hootie & the Blowfish was a pleasant surprise. Unimpressive two years ago at Irvine Meadows, the South Carolina pop-rock-soul band seemed to benefit from cabin fever: It had just finished six weeks of studio work on its third album.

Though it went unspoken, Hootie's set was keyed by healthy outrage at last week's racist abomination in Texas. The band opened with "Drowning," a lament of hatred that, tame on the album, crackled with urgency thanks to a charged vocal by Darius Rucker. Previously prone to sameness with his chesty, grainy delivery, Rucker sang with a richer, more pliant voice that bodes well for the band's efforts to establish staying power.

Life's suddenness and unpredictability are the core theme of "The Carnival," Wyclef Jean's successful album apart from his hit pop-rap act the Fugees. Jean's cold-then-hot set could have used the sudden impact of which he sings. He dithered through half his 25-minute allotment before getting on track with his warmly wafting folk-pop-R&B hit "Gone Till November."

Vonda Shepard, a veteran of L.A. coffeehouses, didn't do half badly for a sensitive singer-songwriter playing way out of position in the middle of a baseball stadium's outfield. Shepard got her shot on the coattails of "Ally McBeal," the hit television series that features her music. Her bright, determined performance of the show's anthem, "Searchin' My Soul," lifted the crowd she had briefly lost with a brave but ill-considered broad-daylight attempt to sneak in one of her introspective ballads.

Tom Jones put the Tango in the Wango--or at least the waltz, as he stepped his way daintily through "What's New Pussycat?" It was a lighthearted, savvy bit of stagecraft typical of Jones' delightful, 20-minute lark before the early arrivers. With funny, outsized gestures and mock-dramatic matador moves, he found the humor in "Pussycat" and "Delilah." But his iron-clad, stadium-size voice, and a well-honed backing ensemble, did musical justice to everything.

Meredith Brooks sang capably, but her tone and phrasing carried lots of reminders of trumpeting Alanis Morissette and drawling Sheryl Crow, and her woman-with-attitude stance was borrowed from and overshadowed by Chrissie Hynde.

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