Luther Vandross Live (review)

At Kleinhans Music Hall on Monday night, Luther Vandross once again proved that R&B doesn’t have to involve gutbucket hollering and gospel-like testifying in order to be meaningful. Instead, the nearly two-hour set depended largely on the subtlety of Vandross’ vocal phrasing as he and his knife-sharp band delivered classic hits such as “Never Too Much,” “Wait For Love” and “So Amazing,” as well as songs from the singer’s eponymously titled new album.

The tunes from his latest set blended perfectly with the rest of his oeuvre. Vandross, dressed in what resembled shiny black formal wear, opened the show with the aggressive thumper “Say It Now,” and he later performed his current single, the ballad “Can Heaven Wait.” Both songs dealt with regret and the risks involved in waiting to express important feelings to loved ones.

On his older numbers, Vandross alternately celebrated romance, braved loneliness, tried to heal from heartbreak and remained open to the promise of new love. The vulnerability of the sentiments and his insightful phrasing afford him a unique place in the history of R&B male vocalists.

In fact, because of the tender emotionalism that he brings to his performances, Vandross has much more in common with female singers such as Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross than with, say, Al Green or Teddy Pendergrass. And it’s no surprise that of the many songs that received enthusiastic applause from the capacity crowd at Kleinhans, most, such as “A House Is Not A Home,” “Superstar” and “If Only For One Night,” were originally recorded by women.

Vandross brought an uncompromised intelligence to his singing throughout the night. He conveyed meaning not by over-emoting, but rather by seeming to think through each lyric in order to render the precise shade of emotion.

His assured, thoughtful croons were enhanced by his skilled coterie of backing vocalists. Dressed in shiny, black and white sequined outfits and performing intricate choreographed moves, these singers came across as if they were part of a classic R&B vocal group from the ’60s, executing harmonies that were as vibrant and multi-hued as the red, purple and blue lights that illuminated the stage.

Because of the contributions of these vocalists as well as Vandross’ singing prowess, the show attested that, when it comes to upholding the esteemed tradition of black music showmanship, Vandross is without peer or protege. And that’s fitting, since it couldn’t get much better than this.

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