Usher makes it look easy at the Warner Theatre on Election Night. Photo by Kyle Gustafson.
He’s a complicated man, but no one understands him like his, er, women.
Usher’s current Here I Stand is the 30-year-old R&B star’s first album as a husband and father, and on it, he seems to warm to the settled life (while scoring a No. 1 hit about a nightclub tryst). His Election Night show at the Warner Theatre, however, suggested a certain nostalgia for his playa days. Indeed, the “ladies only” (it said so right on the ticket) One Night Stand tour might be the most precision-choreographed date in the history of premeditated seduction. For just shy of two high-impact hours, Usher Raymond IV grooved, crooned, and grinned his way through a steamy set of house-quaking hits stretching back more than a decade.
Sharing a violet-draped, bedchamber-like stage with his band, three backup singers, and four dancers, the multi-Grammy winner proved himself a skillful, charismatic showman. Ubiquitous jams “Love in This Club” and “Yeah!” sounded indistinguishable from the records, but the eye-popping dance routines kept the event stoked with the risky thrill of live performance. For “This Ain’t Sex,” he borrowed some of Michael Jackson’s iconic moves, as though the $102 tickets had been priced at $1 per crotch-grab. Of course, it took nothing so explicit to draw squeals of ecstatic frenzy from the ladies-mostly audience — the svelte star repeatedly did it with a point and a wink.
When he did shed his jacket, vest, shirt, and tank-top (twice!), things got unruly: A sweaty undershirt tossed into the crowd touched off a near-brawl among ladies clawing for a souvenir. Later, he offered an even bigger prize, pulling a woman onstage, sitting her in an easy chair and feeding her strawberries. “You realize you represent for all of Chocolate City, right?,” he asked. Chocolate City’s delegate responded with a lap-dance and a front-split, prompting Usher to sing, “I got to take you backstage right now, girl!”, vanishing for several minutes while the DJ played Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
After “Trading Places” found him miming various sexual positions with a lingerie-clad dancer atop his baby grand (not a metaphor; she was working on the piano), another dancer brought him a cigar and a snifter of cognac (or perhaps apple juice). Both became props for the slinky medley of vintage slow-jams that followed, including snippets of Prince’s “Do Me, Baby” and “Adore.”
The star appeared moved by the crowd’s embrace, and there was at least one genuinely spontaneous moment: When he tossed his mic-stand away during the climactic “Here I Stand,” it actually struck his (male) guitarist. Listen up, Fellas: When Usher says “ladies only,” he means it!
A shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.