(Photo: When bad concerts happen to good cousins…)
This past Saturday was the best of times and the worst of times. Reconnecting with my favorite Chicagoan after a brief absence (and learning just how wrong an end of the stick I had gotten regarding his stress-induced sabbatical) was definitely the high point of the weekend.
So, too, was Sonny’s invitation to accompany him to the Robin Thicke/Jennifer Hudson double-bill concert at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place. Considering I didn’t even eat my first Italian Beef until 2008, no one should be surprised that after six years in Chicago, Saturday was the first time I had ever set foot in the vast, labyrinthine complex that is McCormick.
Sonny wasn’t the only thing that drew me to the place. Though before the concert, I had no idea who Robin Thicke was (even with my newly clean-shaven, younger looking face, I am now officially that old), I was curious to see what Jennifer Hudson could do live, in person, with no intervening editing. With high expectations, I was looking forward to finding out.
I’m still reeling from the great fun that was Robin Thicke’s opening set. For 75 minutes, his show was energetic, well-paced, kinetically illuminated, and effectively amped, and Thicke, himself, was totally engaged with the audience.
They were engaged right back with him, too–I’ve never seen more black women of all ages so ready to jump the bones of a young, skinny white boy. (As long as I’m on the subject, considering that his parents are the whitest folks in show business–Alan Thicke and Gloria Loring–where, exactly, does Robin Thicke’s accent come from?)
Perhaps the only off-notes in Thicke’s set were his repeated exhortations for the “men to be with their ladies” and “ladies to be with their men”. Considering that it’s 2009, I assume Thicke knows he has gay fans, especially in a city the size of Chicago. He shouldn’t shut them out in his act.
Still, even though I didn’t know a note of Robin Thicke’s music beforehand, I left at evening’s end with great appreciation for his youthful soul and smoky phrasing, and made a mental note to purchase some of his tracks from the iTunes Store.
In hindsight, we should we have left at intermission, instead.
Sonny called it before we even arrived at the Arie Crown, telling me, “Jennifer Hudson is going to suck.” I need to trust his judgment more frequently, because to the same degree that Robin Thicke’s act was a headliner-worthy production, to put it charitably, Jennifer Hudson’s was not.
That could be because Saturday’s concert was Hudson’s first hometown appearance since the murders that rocked her family in October 2008. I give her a lot of credit for embarking on her debut tour barely six months since the tragic events and I don’t blame her for wanting to publicly thank her family for their support and share her origins with her Chicago audience.
Had Hudson’s show (and showmanship, for that matter) been as electric as Thicke’s, the sour notes in the second-half of the evening would have been easier to swallow. Surprisingly, neither were.
For starters, Hudson’s producers saw fit to pump the amps throughout the Arie Crown to their highest levels from her opening note onwards, making her set physically painful to sit through (and we were two-thirds of the way up the balcony, at that). By the middle of the show, Sonny had his earplugs in and my ears where time-sharing my fingers so I wouldn’t go deaf in both of them simultaneously.
Events onstage were no less painful. On her next tour, Hudson would profit from a professional choreographer, lighting designer, and public speaking coach, none of whose services were anywhere evident when she took the stage Saturday night. Had it not been Jennifer Hudson’s over-amplified voice bludgeoning our ears into submission from (about a mile away) down there onstage, the entire production wouldn’t have had much to differentiate it from a high school senior showcase.
Most odd, though, was Hudson’s continual appeals–orders, really–for the crowd to welcome and cheer her family members. There were many opportunities to do so. At least a dozen times during her barely 60-minute performance, Hudson handed her microphone away to cousins in the first row, allowing them to warble their way through one painful line, verse, or chorus after another.
The nadir came when Hudson invited a four-cousin singing troupe onstage to power through the Beatles’ “Let It Be”. They did a stunning job. Hudson could have left it there. Instead, she told them to sing another song, and then in her most bizarre move of the evening, walked offstage for five minutes.
In all, about 15 minutes of Saturday night’s Jennifer Hudson concert was sung by people other than Jennifer Hudson, leaving me wondering what fans who (unlike me) had paid to attend the show must have been thinking about the whole affair. (Perhaps that if they had wanted to hear Hudson’s cousins sing, they would have attended their South Side church and listened to them in the choir–for free?)
It isn’t as if the music made up for it. While Hudson sang four signature songs from Dreamgirls, she cut two of them short–including injudiciously cutting out the show-stopping note from the middle of “And I Am Telling You”, which was her only encore of the evening. Her other numbers were either covers of old R&B songs or forgettable original numbers like “Pocketbook” (sung while two drag-queen-esque women inexplicably stomped around the stage swinging their purses).
After the concert, Sonny and I compared notes as we shared a midnight Greektown dinner at Parthenon. I told him though I was disappointed by Hudson, I was totally turned on to Robin Thicke. He told me, “You look really good without your goatee.”
When I was done swooning, I swore to myself I’d attend another hometown Hudson concert before I’d grow it back, either.