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He's livin' la vida nueva

Ricky Martin boldly tries to reinvent himself on current tour.

January 26, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

LESS than an hour into Ricky Martin's visually dazzling and physically demanding two-hour set Tuesday, the still vigorous 34-year-old performer struck a flamenco dance pose at center stage. Behind him, a female dancer appeared in a flowing white dress, stamping her feet to gypsy rhythms embellished with guitars and flamenco percussion.

It took a while to realize they were doing "She Bangs," the frivolous pop follow-up to Martin's once ubiquitous smash, "Livin' La Vida Loca," which he had performed earlier in the show, also with a radically morphed beat and melody.

It's going on six years since the Puerto Rican pop sensation performed in Los Angeles, and at his concert comeback at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, the singer boldly tried to reinvent the hits that had turned him into a global superstar.

It's a big gamble for an artist to transform his best-known songs onstage almost beyond recognition, because fans often expect the faithful reproduction of radio favorites. Bob Dylan famously does it to wrench new meanings from his cornerstone works.

The problem is "She Bangs" is no "Blowin' in the Wind." The only way to get more out of Martin's dance ditty is to make fun of it, as "American Idol" reject William Hung effectively demonstrated. Exploiting Spain's rich tradition to reshape the song only accentuated its hollowness, since true flamenco comes from a deeply soulful place where "She Bangs" can never go.

Martin's daring attempt at reinvention may have misfired. Still, the big question before the show was not how much Martin had changed but whether he still had his stuff. In his long absence from the concert stage, the superstar had roamed the world in search of new meaning and sought new purpose in charitable work for children.

The singer proved Tuesday that he remains a riveting performer with an adoring, albeit much-reduced following. Though it has been a steep fall from selling out arenas in 2000, his 18-city One Night Only tour has been filling midsized venues since it kicked off in Texas a week ago.

Aside from older hits such as "The Cup of Life" and "Maria," Martin also did several songs from "Life," his first English-language album in five years, which has failed to yield a hit or even a memorable track. Much of the music was up-tempo pop, amped into a muddled, rumbling wall of noise. It was deafening and bombastic, but fans loved it.

Along with new arrangements, Martin also unveiled some new moves: martial-arts summersaults and handstands, sinuous snake-charming wiggles and even new ways to pivot his pelvis.

The crowd went delirious when Martin finally wound up with an open shirt revealing his well-toned torso. The man doesn't age, though his demographic noticeably has. Tuesday's multiethnic crowd ranged from early 20s to mid-60s, leaving teens looking for the next Menudo, the boy band that gave Martin his start.

At one point, Martin explained his long performance sabbatical as a necessary escape from the vida loca. He needed time to reflect on who he is and who he wants to be.

Judging from his concert, the answer is: everything to everybody. His act incorporates Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and sundry sounds into a non-organic pop melange, as if he had digitized the world into discreet bits he samples for the show.

The show's exhilarating tropical segment suggested he may be better off going back to his roots. Or he could fall back on his original pop formula for success: Find good songs he can make his own.

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