Here’s a great problem to have: more hits than you could conceivably play in a 90-minute concert.
It sure beats R. Kelly’s other problems. Tuesday and Wednesday marked his first hometown concerts since being acquitted on child-pornography charges last year. He referred to that trouble only indirectly, preaching when he wasn’t singing that some people tried to keep him down, but he wouldn’t let them-and crediting the fans for giving him strength.
Those assembled weren’t about to throw cold water on the hottest party in town anyway: The crowd at Chicago’s gorgeous Auditorium Theatre-mostly women-were dressed as gold and sparkly as the 19th-century opera house itself, and they were primed to hear and cheer and sing and play along. For God’s sake, all Kelly had to do was stand still at the front of the stage and cock his head to elicit Elvis-sized screams.
But of course he did much more than that: Every indie band in the world should be forced to watch R. Kelly tapes to learn a little bit about showmanship. For the first part of the set, the stage featured velvet ropes with ladies from the audience dancing inside while Kelly blasted through medley after medley in what felt like a tour of urban radio, 1990-present. It’s a genius move, playing only bits of songs at a time. It plays like a DJ mix with only the good parts included, from sex jam “Hotel” to sex jam “I’m a Flirt” to sex jam “Freaky in the Club.”
But what makes all of those snatches of songs about snatch work so well is Kelly’s innate charisma: One minute he looks serious, then adopts a sly grin to deliver the finishing blow of “Fuck You Tonight,” which goes, quite simply, “I’m fucking you tonight.” The ladies at the front of the stage stroked his denim, and Robert looked right at home. The constant fucking might have been a little much without that sense of humor, which extended to a skit in which Kelly went behind a dressing screen and pretended to take off his underwear, which he then threw at an audience member who had just done the same for him. (It was all pretty clearly stunt underwear in both directions, but fun nonetheless. And Kelly wears tighty-whities, ladies.)
And he sounded fantastic, too, backed by a five-piece band-guitar, drums, a couple banks of synths-and a pair of backup singers, all situated so far upstage as to be nearly invisible. But they knew when to bring the funk-“Freaky in the Club” doesn’t get enough credit for being weird-and when to lay off completely and let the man and his audience trade vocals.
The energy dipped a bit later in the show as the string of club bumpers gave way to more tepid R&B. Still, the constant singalongs lifted tracks like “Your Body’s Calling” higher than they might otherwise have gone, and “I Believe I Can Fly” is still memorable long after Space Jam has faded away, especially with a few thousand backing vocalists on hand.
Late in the set, Kelly left the stage while a video tribute to Michael Jackson played-it was a strange moment that lasted a few beats too long: Home video of Jackson dancing to Kelly songs was touching, but we’ve seen the montage that followed it a dozen times before. It would’ve been a downer to go out on, but Kelly wouldn’t do that. Instead, he returned in a black suit and red bow tie to simultaneous honor his deceased mother and Sam Cooke, the former a huge fan of the latter. He crooned-and what a croon-“Bring It On Home to Me” and “A Change is Gonna Come” into an old-fashioned microphone before stepping back to the present for “Step in the Name of Love” and “Happy People.”
There’s absolutely nothing to that last song, in the best ways: It’s just a few minutes of wide-eyed escapism (“Happy people / They keep the world dancin'”). But that’s an R. Kelly show in miniature, anyway. It’s a celebration, never much more than skin deep, but intensely pleasurable just the same.