Must-See Show for Fans of Rhythm & Blues

Tevin Campbell is the concert's young star, `Babyface,' its urban gentleman, and Boyz II Men, its ultraclean and enormously popular quartet

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The lineup was a contemporary rhythm-and-blues lover's dream: 18-year old former wunderkind Tevin Campbell, songwriter-balladeer Kenny ``Babyface'' Edmonds, and the chart-topping harmonies of Boyz II Men.

As the house lights were dimmed, it became immediately apparent that the screams of the near-capacity San Jose Arena crowd were considerably higher-pitched than that of, say, a Rolling Stones or Smashing Pumpkins audience. Not too surprising, given Boyz II Men's and Campbell's younger demographic appeal.

(What remained a mystery, however, was how a majority of the concertgoers, too young to vote, could afford the $35 to $50 ticket prices.)

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Campbell opened the evening with a funky, extended reading of ``Round and Round,'' the Prince-penned hit that propelled Campbell into the pop charts in 1991. Supported by a four-piece band, three backing vocalists, and four dancers, he burst onto the stage with a cordless microphone and a confident smile.

Half the length of Boyz II Men's and Babyface's sets, Campbell's performance included the title track and other songs off his current album, ``I'm Ready'' (Qwest), as well as a smoking cover of Aretha Franklin's 1971 classic ``Rock Steady.''

Though he excelled at up-tempo numbers, Campbell's selections emphasized the mid-tempo pieces that have brought him much radio and fan recognition. But songs like ``Always in My Heart'' and ``Can We Talk'' came across too enthusiastically, with Campbell's belted vocals (and an overpowering drumbeat) transforming cozy love songs into full-on power ballads.

If Campbell was the night's ``young star,'' then Babyface was its urban gentleman.

Flanked by four female dancers and backed by three vocalists and a fuller-sounding, seven-piece band, Babyface opened with a hard-swinging version of ``It's No Crime,'' closed with his Top-5 acoustic guitar-based ballad, ``When Can I See You,'' and won a legion of hearts in between.

A master of the romantic ballad, Babyface was in his element when he played the role of chivalrous crooner, as he did on ``Never Keeping Secrets,'' ``Lady, Lady,'' and ``Two Occasions.'' He sang about treating women right and, after an exchange with a woman from the audience, elicited a roar of approval.

``I feel that women demand respect. Rather, I feel that women deserve respect,'' he announced, before inviting the woman to join him onstage. Once in the spotlight and seated atop a stool, she was slowly serenaded and then given $500 to pay her rent.

After witnessing Babyface's stellar showing, it was easy to forget that Babyface is, more often than not, a Grammy-winning producer and songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson and Madonna to Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey (and Campbell and Boyz II Men, as well). In fact, it ultimately took an invitation from Boyz II Men to get him out of the studio and onto the road.

When Boyz II Men hit the stage, they needed no dancers or backing vocalists, with only a tight six-piece band supplementing their side-to-side slides, spins, choreographed arm movements, and crisp harmonies.

Much to the delight of the audience (most of whom were presumably in attendance to see Boyz II Men), the ultraclean sounding - and looking - quartet delivered their liveliest numbers, like an opening medley of ``Under Pressure/Your Love/Please Don't Go,'' ``U Know,'' and a rousing ``Motownphilly.''

But it was Boyz II Men's quieter songs - ``Water Runs'' and ``Please Don't Go'' - and especially three No. 1 epics that showed why their current album, ``II'' (Motown), has gone platinum.

The first of the three was ``On Bended Knee'' (their most recent No. 1 single), which found them sitting on stools and singing for forgiveness. Later, the quartet ascended on lifts from beneath center stage for ``I'll Make Love to You'' (the hit single that recently tied Whitney Houston's recording-breaking 14 weeks at No. 1), with each member distributing roses to the front row.

``End of the Road'' (which was No. 1 for 13 weeks), closed the show, losing some of its climactic poignancy when it was turned into a participatory sing-along.

* Boyz II Men and Babyface will appear in the following cities: tonight, Worcester, Mass.; 1/18, Hartford, Conn.; 1/20, Chapel Hill, N.C.; 1/21, Charlotte, N.C.; 1/22, Hampton, Va.; 1/23, Detroit; 1/27, San Jose, Calif.; 1/28, Anaheim, Calif.; 1/30, Los Angeles. Female singer Brandy will perform at concerts held 1/17, 1/18, 1/20-1/22, 1/27-1/28; Campbell will join the lineup at concerts on 1/23 and 1/30.

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