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Usher at Xcel Energy Center, 11/18/14

Usher
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The high points of Usher's poorly paced, unfocused performance at the Xcel Energy Center last night were two ballads -- "Climax" and "Burn" -- about lovers refusing to admit that a relationship has reached its natural end. In an arena that was less than half full, its 7,000 paying customers rarely loud enough to fill the dead air when the singer pointed his mic toward them, the songs' themes inadvertently suggested a dark commentary on the (former?) star's career.

Less dramatically, let's admit that Usher is at an awkward age: Hardly the dominant pop R&B figure of just a decade ago, he's not yet commercially irrelevant enough to admit he's an oldies act. Last night's set list reflected this confusion.

See also:
Slideshow: Usher Heats Up the Xcel Energy Center

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The 36-year-old singer came onstage in a studded leather jacket and what appeared to be a pair of pinkish booties, launched into an accomplished flurry of Michael Jackson-derived moves, and opened with the 17-year-old hit "My Way." Then he flashed forward to the more recent, glossier dance hits "OMG" and "Love in This Club." These songs had only one thing in common: Usher was singing them.

A rhythmic opportunist like Usher, who has adapted to commercial demands over the years too fluidly to have a trademark sound, has to impose an emotional narrative on his material to make sense of it all. Instead, Usher too often treated his hits like items on a grocery list, tossing "You Make Me Wanna..." into his cart and speeding off to the next aisle, denying it the breathing space necessary for its drama to unfold.

At this point, then, "Nice and Slow" was so necessary, with Usher deigning to seduce a crowd he'd previously clobbered with seat-rattling bass, and he carried over this small level of intimacy with "U Remind Me."

He next offered some advice for how to handle a lover (male or female, he deliberately specified) who's "talkin' all out the side of they neck," slapped on some shades, and kicked off "Twisted" -- a minor non-hit, but its much-needed funk suggested that maybe we were finally getting somewhere.

But though "Caught Up" continued that momentum, Usher lost his way during "She Came to Give It to You," which ebbed into the least effective attempt to instigate an audience call-and-response I've ever seen a headliner endure. This wasn't the perfect time, then, for "Climax," the most critically celebrated single of his career, but the ballad soared, allowing Usher to regain his footing and effectively showcasing his vulnerable falsetto.

Instead of building on this intensity, though, Usher cut off a brief "Confessions Part II" so abruptly you'd think his lawyer had just rushed into the interrogation room. And for what? A bigger hit? Nope. Just schtick. One of those "Which side of the room is loudest?" contests than can be fun when a performer is in control but comes off as desperate when he's not.

We never got a clear winner because Usher disappeared. When he returned, stripped down to a more temperature-appropriate sleeveless black T-shirt, the show dissolved into a blur of medleys, with Usher and his DJ shredding bits of hits into barely discernible mulch, like a bad DJ cutting clumsily from one familiar hook to the next to get quick, cheap cheers but never allowing the crowd to luxuriate in the groove.

Things settled down again for a nice trifecta of slow-to-midtempo numbers: "Burn," "There Goes My Baby," and "U Got It Bad." But the show stopped dead as Usher scouted the crowd for "my number one" and took way too long to bring six women onstage to compete for his attentions. To their credit, the ladies seemed to be having more fun than the star, and their dance-off featured two cheer-deserving splits. Then there was a trumpet solo. Yeah, me neither.

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The dirty recent single "Good Kisser," which really should have been a hit, was a late show highlight. (It's less about what the titular kisser does with her lips than with where she puts them.) But the uptempo string of tunes that should have brought the show home felt perfunctory, never quite connecting with the crowd.

Throughout the night, in fact, Usher and his audience had different agendas. "These songs are like a diary to me," the singer explained thoughtfully during one of the show's many lulls. "TAKE IT OFF!" the woman behind me screamed, and she had a point. We'd been granted only the briefest of shirt lifts so far. As she explained to me, a bit sheepish about her outburst, "We were expecting a lot more abs."

Instead, she got to see Usher play a drum solo. It was competent. And maybe Neal Peart looks OK with his shirt off, who knows? Usher did go topless after his sole encore, the David Guetta raver "Without U." But the woman who'd been screaming for skin had already left the arena by then, and so had many others.

Set List:
My Way
OMG
Love in This Club
You Make Me Wanna...
Lil' Freak
Nice & Slow
U Remind Me
Twisted
Caught Up
She Came to Give It to You
Climax
Confessions
Hey Daddy / My Boo / I Need a Girl
Lovers and Friends
I Don't Mind / Body Language / New Flame
Burn
There Goes My Baby
U Got It Bad
Superstar
Bad Girl
Good Kisser
U Don't Have to Call
DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love
Yeah

Encore:
Without U

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