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Pop Music Review

On Stage, Wyclef Jean Likes to Draw a Crowd

Daring, eclectic performer ends show with audience lovefest that leaves some moving music behind.

November 03, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

The answer was a commanding yes around 10 p.m. Wednesday the first time Wyclef Jean asked the audience if it was having a good time at his concert.

The response was even more resoundingly positive half an hour later when he posed the same question again.

But many fans at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center were surely wavering when Jean asked it a final time around 11:30. It's not that he had run out of good songs--he had simply abandoned them.

Jean is a marvelously talented musician with a great sense of spontaneity, and the show was spectacular when he focused on his music.

But he doesn't want to just engage the audience with his songs. Jean also involves it in a sort of old-fashioned, warm-spirited block party--something rooted in the Caribbean heritage of the Haitian-born performer.

As a result, the concert turned into the equivalent of an after-show party during its final half-hour, as Jean invited audience members on stage for such activities as freestyle rap and dance contests.

My vote would have been for more music and less party, but Jean's own mix may be an essential part of his own musical vision. He's part philosopher and part entertainer.

Befitting someone who underscores his own eclectic tastes in his new album's title ("The Ecleftic"), Jean alternated between almost half a dozen roles Wednesday. Among other things, Jean was a hip-hopper, rock 'n' roller, contest judge and camp counselor.

He worked so hard at building a sense of community in the room that you wouldn't be surprised some night if he turns the house lights on and asks everyone in the audience to introduce themselves to each other.

Jean did step down from the stage to walk to the rear of the facility at one point to better involve the fans in the show. Jean's brother, rapper Sedeck, and his sister, singer Melky, are even part of his musical cast.

As a member of the Fugees and in his solo career, Jean is a thinking man's hip-hop star. He's not as relentlessly political as Public Enemy's Chuck D. or as consistently inspiring as the late Bob Marley, but there are traces of both artists in his manner and music.

Jean and his band--drummer, keyboardist, DJ and bassist--even opened their set with "No Woman, No Cry," the Marley classic that was also featured on the Fugees' 1996 breakthrough album, "The Score."

It was an unlikely opener because the tune is such a thoughtful, reflective number--not the kind of upbeat curtain-raiser that musicians normally favor in concert. But the choice is typical of the daring that makes Jean such an invigorating and unpredictable force on stage.

In a field plagued by a lack of great live acts, Jean is all the more remarkable an artist. His Fugees partner Lauryn Hill is the only major hip-hop artist who has delivered a concert filled with as much character and range.

But Hill's show on her hugely successful 1999 tour was far more conventional in design than Jean's freewheeling affair, which finds him constantly reaching for something fresh by redesigning various songs. His tender "Gone Till November" got changed into "Smokin' Till November" as part of a marijuana-themed pairing with "Something About Mary" from the new album.

Jean is primarily a rapper and singer, but he proved equally winning as a guitarist, kicking off "Guantanamera" with a lovely solo, show-boating later with some Chuck Berry-inspired licks and infusing Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" with his own musical sensibilities.

What he needs to realize is that his music alone is so rich in uplifting human qualities that it creates its own sense of community with the audience. There was a festive spirit in the building Wednesday long before he officially turned it into a party.

Jean could blend the audience-participation elements into the show rather than tacking them on at the end. On Wednesday, for instance, he could have closed the show with "Diallo," a tune from the new album that he didn't perform.

The song is a moving reflection on the death of an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 41 times by New York police in a controversial 1999 incident. It would not only have been a truer reflection of Jean's musical urgency, but also a far more memorable final image for the audience than the sight of a couple dozen fans jumping on stage to shake their booty.

*

* Wyclef Jean, with Black Eyed Peas and De La Soul, Saturday at the Santa Barbara Bowl, 1122 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara, 6:30 p.m. $19.50 to $27.50. (805) 962-7411. Also Sunday at RIMAC Arena, UC San Diego, 7:30 p.m. $23.50. (619) 534-6467.

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