Charles Thomson

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The Heir, Apparently
February 2011, Sawf News

About a third of the way into his second show at London’s O2 Arena, Usher takes a moment to remember Michael Jackson. “While we don’t get the pleasure of seeing him perform here,” he says, “I have the opportunity to pay tribute to him.”

In a scene so surreal that it could have been lifted from a Monty Python sketch, a pair of silver high-topped sneakers arrives onstage, bathed in white light, via a conveyor belt. Usher spreads his arms, looks to the heavens and asks, “Do I have permission to fill these shoes?”

Quite when Usher thinks he remembers seeing Michael Jackson perform in a pair of silver basketball shoes is unclear. He dances briefly to the opening refrains of Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, although that’s far from the only nod to Jackson in tonight’s show, and as the evening wears on it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not going to be filling Jackson’s shoes any time soon – although not for lack of trying.

In fact, the entire concert plays out rather like one long, underwhelming Michael Jackson tribute gig. There are two references to the King of Pop before Usher has even sung a note. Shortly before he appears onstage a CGI army dances in unison on an enormous LCD screen – a clear lift from Jackson’s This Is It. Then Usher rises through the floor dressed as a spaceman of sorts, lifting a helmet to reveal himself to his fans – a routine Jackson used in several incarnations throughout his career. But Usher’s borrowing from Jackson doesn’t stop there. The ‘homages’ come thick and fast all night.

Just a few songs into Usher’s set, a spotlight illuminates a briefcase perched atop a stool, from which he slowly retrieves a medallion – a direct copy of an old Jackson routine, used to introduce performances of Billie Jean. He leads synchronized dances in a shiny red jacket a la Beat It and his 2001 hit U Remind Me is described by the Telegraph as containing choreography “eerily mirroring Jackson’s performances of The Way You Make Me Feel.”

(C) Charles Thomson

Photographer: Charles Thomson

It would be unfair to dismiss the entire show on the basis of Usher’s constant borrowing from Michael Jackson; the singer makes no secret of his adulation of the King of Pop. But putting the Jackson obsession to one side, something is still lacking.

There’s nothing wrong with the show on a technical level. The dancing is rehearsed to the point of near perfection. The live vocals, when he bothers with them, are fairly strong, particularly on ballads like There Goes My Baby. The special effects are slick, the costume changes are brief and the pacing is fine. But what’s curiously lacking any sense of uniqueness.

With more than 15 years in the industry, Usher is a superstar – but his show feels distinctly ordinary; generic, even. The concert is packed with hits – Burn, Caught Up and Yeah to name just a few – but the routines are almost cliché. One feels as though once Usher hangs up his trilby at the end of the tour, Chris Brown or Jason Derulo will simply take his place and the entire production will go back on the road under another moniker. The show is so derivative it’s almost boring; if you saw Justin Timberlake on his Justified Tour almost 10 years ago, you’ve seen it all before.

In order to play an arena, an artist needs to have the personality to fill it. If they don’t, no amount of dancers, pyrotechnics or video interludes are going to compensate. When Prince performed at the O2 in 2007 his personality was so enormous that he made the cavernous space seem almost intimate. Conversely, one feels disassociated from Usher’s performance – not helped by the fact that he hides behind large sunglasses for much of the gig. There’s so little personality on display that watching from a distance, it might as well not be Usher onstage at all.

This disconnect has been picked up on by other reviewers, too; the Telegraph complains of his ‘inability to connect emotionally with his songs’ while the Guardian says he ‘emanates detachment’ and laments the ‘odd joylessness’ of his performance.

The flatness of the gig is perhaps attributable, in part, to the amount of new material Usher performs, including Monstar, Hey Daddy, Love ‘Em All and DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again. While Usher’s early albums were above average, albeit not game-changing, examples of contemporary R&B, his recent output has been lackluster and after a while the songs begin to blend into one another.

Despite having a band onstage, Usher spends much of the night singing over backing tracks which often include some pre-recorded vocals and on certain numbers fans have questioned whether any of the vocals are live at all. This, combined with the generic routines, results in an evening thoroughly lacking in energy or spontaneity.

The biggest difference between Usher and his hero is that despite the precision with which Michael Jackson’s shows were put together, at his peak he still managed to immerse himself in the music, creating as he went and exuding a joy and energy that transferred to his audience. Usher, conversely, seems like he’s coasting; the show feels like a dress rehearsal.

(C) Charles Thomson

Photographer: Charles Thomson

That said, the audience doesn’t seem to care, cheering from start to finish. But much of the audience comprises shrieking girls who, one gets the distinct impression, wouldn’t care if their idol came out and sang nursery rhymes just as long as he took his top off while he did it. For the record, Usher takes his top off twice during the evening, strutting around the stage and curling his top lip at various women in the front rows. The audience laps it up.

Gig-goers dazzled by elaborate dance routines and women dazzled by sculpted torsos will find plenty to love here. Those seeking a raw, honest, live music experience will be less impressed.

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Charles Thomson - Sky News