Billboard: Michael Jackson Concert Review

Michael Jackson: The Solo Years / Sept. 7, 2001 / New York (Madison Square Garden)

Scores of celebrities and thousands of fans filled New York's Madison Square Garden Friday (Sept. 7) to pay tribute to Michael Jackson on the occasion of his 30th anniversary as a solo artist. For most, this four-hour show would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the King of Pop, and an unforgettable experience at that.

However, the show's staging left much to be desired, leaving far too much downtime between the acts. Gradually, the audience grew understandably impatient, repeatedly booing during the lapses.

Presented more like an awards show than a traditional concert, the evening found an offstage announcer introducing the celebrities, who were plentiful. Even the audience -- at least in the $2500 seats -- comprised everyone from David Hasselhoff to Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.

During some breaks, the screens displayed video montages, alternately showing children from around the world idolizing Jackson, classic clips of his performances, and promotions for the "HIStory" album with thousands of troops marching to the Jackson monument. There were also testimonials from celebrities -- albeit an unlikely selection for a contemporary musician, or even an icon, featuring the likes of Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Whether the delays were due to the night's larger practical purpose -- a taping for a CBS television special to be aired in November -- or true technical difficulties, the breaks prevented the show from gaining any momentum. Still, it was an elaborate, classy production, with a two-story set onstage, upon which a full orchestra accompanied the musical numbers.

Although the tickets claimed the show would begin at "7:40 SHARP!," nearly an hour passed before Jackson, decorated in white sequins and accompanied by his parents and friends such as Elizabeth Taylor and Macaulay Culkin, took his seat to the right of the stage to watch the first part of the evening's festivities. Being in the same room as Jackson, however, was enough excitement for most fans to forget about the delay.

From the first number, it became clear that this extravaganza would be memorable for everyone present. Usher, Mya, and
Whitney Houston performed "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," from Jackson's 1982 smash "Thriller" album, getting the show off to an incredible start. Usher's superb showmanship puts him on the short list of today's entertainers who could even hope to inherit Jackson's legacy. Mya was as adept with elaborate choreography that introduced dozens of dancers, trapeze acts, and fire-eating performers.

Of course, an appearance by Houston these days is an event in itself. Looking rail thin, she kept up with the old-school spirit of the song. Unfortunately, here -- as on many occasions throughout the night -- sonic problems were many, as soloists and other crucial audio elements vanished periodically.

Actor Marlon Brando was next, giving a long-winded speech about child abuse and starvation. But the crowd's interest and respect fell apart quickly, and the audience booed the 77-year-old actor for a good chunk of his nearly 10-minute monologue.

Preteen country star Billy Gilman recovered the energy after the debacle with Brando, singing Jackson's 1971 hit "Ben," which Jackson recorded at nearly the same age. Gilman exhibited a incredible poise and stage presence for the ballad, injecting the same emotion and receiving a standing ovation.

Shaggy appeared to perform his No. 1 singles "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me," two of the few non-Jackson songs of the night, breathing a contemporary air into the show's setlist. Appearing with Rayvon and Ricardo "Rikrok" Ducent, his co-vocalists on the hits, he elicited more than a few swoons for his admittedly Jackson-inspired gyrations. Looking at the guest of honor, Shaggy told him, "You taught me how to do this!"

Following this, a quartet of modern R&B stars paid homage to "The Wiz," the 1978 retelling of "The Wizard of Oz," in which Jackson played the Scarecrow. Jill Scott, Deborah Cox, Monica, and Al Jarreau were costumed as the Scarecrow, the Lion, Dorothy, and the Tin Man, respectively, performing a medley from the musical that finished with the song's trademark hit, "Ease on Down the Road."

During a series of ballads, Jackson -- seen on the videoscreen -- was noticeably affected to the point of weeping. Gloria Estefan and James Ingram came together for an interpretation of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," a 1987 hit from "Bad." Marc Anthony, donning sunglasses, followed this with a stunningly powerful interpretation of "She's Out of My Life"; the sensitive track captured the emotion of Jackson's original. With the strength of the orchestra, the performance took on even more power.

A quintet of female vocalists took on "Heal the World," best remembered from an extravagant performance at the Super Bowl in 1993. Here, Monica, Tamia, Mya, Cox, and rapper Rah Digga gave a straightforward performance, although their talent seemed underused. Instead of building harmonies among themselves, they largely stuck to alternating on the melody. As for Digga, her rap lyric fit in with the song's message, but musically, the rap breaks were fairly jarring from the sweet sound of the song. The children's choir joining the number boosted the performance but upstaged the stars.

Liza Minnelli gave one of several jazzier performances, belting out a fairly gaudy rendition of Jackson's 1995 hit "You Are Not Alone" with a big gospel choir, while dozens of singers circled the mezzanine holding candles. Minnelli also performed "Over the Rainbow," the signature song of her mother, Judy Garland.

Destiny's Child -- who revived "Thriller" choreography in the recent "Bootylicious" video -- appeared in white sequined outfits, complete with one sequined glove apiece, for a fun performance of that hit. Later, Ray Charles brought on a change of pace in a hushed performance of "Crying Time" with jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson.

After another lengthy break, Taylor came onstage for the transition into the second phase of the show. Calling Jackson "my closest friend, a man of integrity and sensitivity, and a true humanitarian," she introduced the Jackson brothers' first appearance in 17 years.

All six brothers (including Jermaine, who left the group in 1975, and Randy, who joined as his replacement) appeared, emerging through the set upstage, except for Michael, who made his first onstage performance of the night through a hole in the stage wearing a space suit.

The Jacksons -- now ranging from 40-50 years old -- bubbled with rejuvenated energy, as they showed skill in their classic dance moves and tight vocal harmonies. They certainly looked happy to be together after so many years.

Amid the generous helping of pyrotechnics, the group performed many of its classic hits, although most were reduced to snippets. All the same, the performance was a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Michael sing lead on favorites including "ABC," "The Love You Save," "I'll Be There" (on which Jermaine sang the bridge, as well as played bass), and "I Want You Back."

For "Dancin' Machine," the Jacksons were joined by 'N Sync, with whom Michael had briefly shared the stage the previous night at the MTV Video Music Awards. The Jacksons remained the focus even while pairing up with the mega-selling quintet, whose Justin Timberlake sported a Michael-esque fedora.

After the Jacksons left the stage and yet another video montage played on the screen, the lights came up on a white sheet, showing Jackson's silhouette. When the sheet dropped, the final segment of the night found the artist himself magically recreating the moments from past videos and concerts. A long time has passed since Jackson was at the peak of his powers, but he proved an utterly compelling presence onstage.

Jackson opened his set with the 1988 No. 1 hit "The Way You Make Me Feel," wearing a bright shirt as in the video. After the first verse, Britney Spears entered to much applause, and the pair traded lines, trailing each other across the stage as in the classic choreography.

Comedian Chris Tucker had a chance to show off his Jackson impression, and even got in a couple yuks. Referencing Jackson's love of exotic animals, he said, "when he called and said there's no money involved -- it was charity -- I said 'Fine,' but I need to get something. Maybe a giraffe?" Perhaps not wise with such a reverent audience, but still funny.

Alone on stage once again, Jackson opened a briefcase, removing a black jacket and hat.
At the appearance of a single sequined glove, the crowd went wild. And thus began a true highlight, "Billie Jean," on which he revisited his original choreography, Moonwalk and all, with all the finesse it had when he premiered it on Motown's 25th Anniversary television special in 1983. Naturally, the audience exploded for these glimpses into Jackson's time capsule.

Former Guns 'N Roses guitarist Slash appeared for "Black or White" and "Beat It." On the latter, Jackson threw on a leather jacket and joined a top-notch gang of dancers dressed as street punks. Slash took liberties with Eddie Van Halen's historic solo, creating something new, but once again, the sound problems rendered his axe-work nearly inaudible.

Jackson then performed his new single, "You Rock My World," the lead track from his upcoming Epic album, "Invincible." Although the track is musically reminiscent of early '90s singles such as "Remember the Time," is has proven a quick hit at radio, climbing to No. 11 on The Billboard Hot 100 in just two weeks.

The big finale found the entire cast singing "We Are the World," the 1985 benefit single that Jackson co-composed. In addition to the orchestra, original producer Quincy Jones conducted the dozens on stage as well as the Legends of Jazz, a combo featuring organist Jimmy Smith and trumpeter Clark Terry, among other jazz icons from the past half-century. On top of the dozens who had already performed, Kenny Rogers, Dionne Warwick, and Yoko Ono joined in on the closing number.

Jackson continued his call-and-response yells of "I love you!" with the audience and thanked many of the performers by name, as the strains of "You Rock My World" reprised for exit music. The stage turned into a big dance party, where Jackson traded moves with Tucker, and Ono with Gilman. After nearly five hours sitting in the arena, the audience was tired, and it seemed Jackson and company were as well. They exited the stage without much fanfare, and many in the audience were out of the theater before the celebrities left the stage, as though the credits were already rolling.

It was a surprisingly anticlimactic finish for such a show, but once it's all edited, everything is audible, and the breaks are stuffed with commercials, the show should make a fantastic TV special. And despite the weaknesses, this will still be one to tell the grandkids about.

Here is the complete setlist for "Michael Jackson: The Solo Years":

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" (Mya, Usher, Whitney Houston)
"Ben" (Billy Gilman)
"Angel" / "It Wasn't Me" (Shaggy, Rayvon, Ricardo "Rikrok" Ducent)
"Wiz Medley" (Jill Scott, Monica, Deborah Cox, Al Jarreau)
"I Just Can't Stop Loving You" (Gloria Estefan, James Ingram)
"She's Out of My Life" (Marc Anthony)
"Heal the World" (Mya, Tamia, Deborah Cox, Monica, Rah Digga)
"You Are Not Alone" / "Over the Rainbow" (Liza Minnelli)
"Bootylicious" (Destiny's Child)
"Crying Time" (Ray Charles, Cassandra Wilson)

The Jacksons:
"Can You Feel It"
"The Love You Save"
"I'll Be There"
"Dancin' Machine" (with 'N Sync)
"Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)"

Michael Jackson:
"The Way You Make Me Feel" (with Britney Spears)
"Billie Jean"
"Black or White" (with Slash)
"Beat It" (with Slash)
"You Rock My World"
"We Are the World" (with full company)
"You Rock My World" reprise

-- Eric Aiese, N.Y.



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