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by Lee Tomboulian
Upon hearing Anita Baker at Riverfront Park, I was struck with the thought: there are three Anitas.
One, of course, is the sultry chanteuse, swirling around the stage in trademark black. Or there is the producer/perfectionist, constantly coaxing the soundman to provide the perfect layering of frequencies. Or, thirdly, there is the reverend Dr. Baker, dispensing platitudes on the Gospel of Romantic Love (with God on the sidelines cheering it on). This Anita won out towards the end, during the intro of "Giving You the Best That I Got," when the good Doctor prescribed thusly: "When you get home from a hard day, and you shut out stress, and sit down, if you spend 5,10, fifteen minutes a day in the arms of your loved one... It'll help."
The producer-Anita came very close to upsetting the balance, cutting off intros because the sound was bad onstage, at one point tritzing offstage to twiddle some dials personally. We waited. The band waited. She minced back onto the stage, saying, "I'm sorry." Twice she did that. The singer-Anita, when she could emerge, showed her tremendous dynamic range. She's often understated, as if she didn't mean to bother you, but just had to tell you something-- a prayerful voice, eventually ("Watch Your Step") overtaken by powerful feeling. She knows well how to save up her gospelly wailing until it's the only thing left to do-when she lets go, finally, the audience lets go, too, into applause.
The seven piece band provided her with a thick, lavishly orchestrated, yet funky background, all popping basses and string synths, kind of a French Silk Pie for the ears. Tenor saxist Everett Harp sounded great on his feature number, and politely inaudible at other times. The four singing Perri sisters stood and sang Anita's background parts with sculpted intensity, even better than when they opened the show with six songs.
Anita is a kind of Aretha-on-ice, cool, in control, often soothing, one-man-woman. If Aretha is the once-and future Queen of Soul, Anita is the CEO. Even her onstage movement has more Tai-Chi than dancing, per se, at least, until later in the set, when you're better acquainted. You know Anita would never allow her photograph to be taken going down an escalator, as on "Aretha's Greatest Hits." Perhaps that's it...control. If Anita could let someone else know how she liked the monitors to sound, she could have still missed the sound-check, had good sound, and could have spared us the sound nuts-and-bolts during the show. With music this seductive, you hate to turn the overhead light on.
It would be easy to make too much symbolic hay out of the ritzy trappings of the set: the huge multi-colored bulbs all over the faux-marble staircase (Watch Your Step," indeed, Mr. Sax Player!) as flying saucers from Shirley MacClaine, or the staircase itself as redolent of the 80's and 90's plutomania. Yet the emphasis in the lyrics is on fidelity in love, stability ("Same Old Love")--capturing the post-AIDS need for reassurance. It's no wonder she's a big success--- a little jazz flavoring ("Everybody scat!," she cried giddily during the encore), down-to earth soulfulness, emphasis on monogamy. Too bad she's married.
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