Whitney: Voice Soaring, Dazzled Crowds...

[Billboard Report]

Stars Honor Michael Jackson In New York

Michael Jackson's 30-year career as solo artist has encompassed everything from the truly brilliant to the utterly bizarre. The same could be said about his star-studded anniversary concert -- a surreal, yet undeniably captivating evening.

Last night's (Sept. 7) concert -- the first of two shows at Madison Square Garden -- marked Jackson's first performance on U.S. soil in more than a decade, during which time he's seen his once-dominant presence on the American music scene decline.

But if there was any doubt about Jackson's star power, it was erased as a capacity crowd -- some of whom had paid up to $2,500 per ticket -- waited anxiously for a glimpse of the King of Pop. Though the night's lineup included the likes of Britney Spears, Destiny's Child, Ray Charles, and Liza Minnelli, it was Jackson who created the most frenzy, even before uttering a single note.

When Jackson made his way to his seat, dressed in a white, glittery jacket with his favorite accessory -- Elizabeth Taylor -- on his arm, he drew crazed screams and applause so intense it drowned out Samuel L. Jackson as he introduced the night's first performance.

The concert kicked off with two of R&B's brightest young stars, Usher and Mya, singing Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin" in an extravagant, jungle-themed dance number. Though Usher has modeled himself as Jackson's heir apparent, he lacked the latter's spark, while Mya's lightweight voice could barely be heard over the music.

It wasn't until Whitney Houston burst on stage toward the end, her voice soaring above theirs, that the song began to echo the original vitality in which Jackson sang it. By the time Houston finished, the crowd was dazzled, giving what would be one of several standing ovations of the night.

But from that high, the concert crashed to a low as Marlon Brando took to the stage, his large frame resting on a couch. Though the crowd cheered at just the sight of the Oscar-winning actor, they soon became bewildered as Brando sent the next few minutes mumbling about child poverty, abuse, and disease. "I saw kids in the last stages of starvation, and it was something you didn't want to see," he said.

It was also something the audience didn't want to hear, as boos began to drown Brando out until he said Jackson was donating money to create a children's hospital in Florida. His exit drew another standing ovation.

It was moments like these -- plus extended delays -- that would plague the three-hour-plus concert until Jackson took the stage. For every truly entertaining moment -- Marc Anthony beautifully crooning "She's Out of My Life," or Destiny's Child paying homage to Jackson with their fedora hats and white gloves during "Bootylicious" -- there were truly cringe-inducing moments that made you want to close your eyes until they were over.

One was Minnelli's rendition of Jackson's "You Are Not Alone." Although it may be one of Jackson's more schmaltzy songs, the R. Kelly-penned tune was never meant to endure this kind of treatment, as a frail-looking Minnelli warbled the No. 1 hit cabaret style, with a gospel choir behind her.

Other stars' talents were clearly misused. Al Jarreau was reduced to playing the Tin Man during recreation of scene from "The Wiz," Jackson's only movie role; the performance from Ray Charles and jazz singer Cassandra Wilson seemed out of place and out of sync, given the pop nature of the show. Then there were the videotaped tributes to Jackson, which lauded him as the "greatest," the "most sensitive," the "most successful" ad naseum.

But those moments were temporarily forgotten once Jackson appeared on the stage. Though the sight of him was at times jarring -- his pale, surgically altered face seems incapable of showing much expression anymore -- his presence was formidable.

First performing together with his brothers for the first time since their 1984 Victory tour, he dazzled the audience with each shimmy or yelp. The highlight was the group's performance of "I'll Be There," which showcased Jackson's soulful interpretation of the classic. Even a cameo appearance by 'N Sync during "Dancing Machine" couldn't upstage the electricity of just the brothers performing together.

Then it was time for Jackson to shine, alone. Anyone expecting Jackson to reinvent himself artistically would be disappointed, however: The only new material from Jackson came as he performed his new single, "You Rock My World," the first release from his upcoming Epic album, "Invincible."

For his old hits, he trotted out familiar dance steps, some of which were over two-decades old, performing songs like "Beat It" and "The Way You Make Me Feel," almost identically to the way he had on video years ago.

At times, it seemed as if even Jackson was tired of them, performing them without the full-effort given in the past. Still, as dated as those moves may have seemed, they were still enough to generate chills of excitement. A special highlight was "Billie Jean" -- for which Jackson dusted off his white trademark glove -- which showcased his freestyling, pulsating footwork.

At 43 years of age and with more than three decades in the spotlight, Jackson's act may have gotten a bit familiar, but never stale, with enough dazzle to get the most jaded Jackson critics out of their seats. After Jackson's performance last night, another comeback doesn't seem out of reach.




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