The setting: The Nokia Theatre in Times Square, probably the coolest underground lair in all of midtown. It was like the underground hotspot at Epcot Center - undulating ceiling, subtle lighting that shifted to cover the whole color spectrum, cheerful, good-looking employees in black. Eight dollar cans of beer. The main theatre area was suprisingly small, to the point where I looked around and thought: "Oh, poor Toni." The crowd size was about equivalent to, I don't know, say, Back to School Night. There were really cool chandeliers on the ceiling, comfortable seats, and intricate shadows thrown on the walls by the lighting systems. Nokia is doing well.
The crowd: I expected it to be another buppie crowd: young black men and women, well-dressed, stylish, fit, like a Terry McMillan novel come to life, sauntering and strutting in complicated hair and suits white men would never dare to don. And there was a significant buppie contingent, as well as ... middle-aged white couples. Who I guess really enjoyed "Unbreak My Heart" for three weeks in 1996, because otherwise why are they there. It was a bizarrely diverse crowd. More immediately, we were sitting in the back near a strong group of Proud Black Women who were very fun and sang every word, and the gay dude to our left (who, tragically, came and left alone) was actually quivering with pleasure during the concert.
The opener: was a comedian, Kyle Grooms. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and was generous with my laughter, and had a good time. He had this great joke about being "fuck-it drunk": when you're so drunk, you just say "fuck it" and don't even care; that's the point when you're dancing when there isn't even any music, you're just fuck-it drunk. I need to work this into my lexicon. Anyways, the comedian was way better than the standard hack opening R&B singer, who drags you through ten songs you don't know, including six ballads you never want to hear again and vocal gymnastics you didn't ask to hear in the first place. Put the melisma back in the bag, homie.
The Toni: OK, this was kind of a weird concert. She started out with "You're Makin Me High" and "Take This Ring," the two songs I was most excited to hear, and she was prancing all around, sort of dancing. She had two white chicks as her dancers, and she made the backup singers, two tall black girls (who happened to be her sisters, she said), dance as well, although they clearly weren't exactly Madonna, or even Paula Abdul, dance-wise. (Poor Toni can't even afford backup dancers and backup singers, y'all. It's that serious.) But the performances were awesome, the choreography was hot, instrumentation solid, but then ...umm... you realized.... Toni... wasn't really..... singing. Oh, no. Oh, snap. We are not listening to pre-recorded vocal tracks for this whole thing. This is not an Ashlee Simpson concert! No!
After the opening aerobics she settled down, flipped a switch, and actually sang. The difference was clear, and then it got pretty awesome. Here's the rundown: despite her cold, her voice sounded good and she hit all the notes; she had many costume changes, but she's looking a little thick in the middle; L thinks she demanded backup dancers who were kind of hefty so she would look better, although I disagreed; she played a lot of her early stuff, and the crowd loved it. She invited people onstage to sing and dance, and she wandered through the audience, which was at first endearing and then weird. She sat on a lot of laps, received a lot of bouquets. There was a crazy skinny white bitch who security was pulling back. There was a lesbian who looked like Jabba the Hutt who brought Toni flowers before she tried to, you know, eat her. There were cool dudes and sad dudes, and a dude who brought his son onstage. It was like Toni had decided, "Hey, my career's not quite where it used to be, maybe tonight let's just get to know each other a little bit.
Besides the audience antics and the strong set list, Toni was right there with all her singing tics that I love ("ooh," "yeah," "Woo!"). The audience would even jump in and supply some of them, which was awesome. We were so on point. But she had some diva tendencies, though, like the two fans (machines, not concert-goers) blowing air towards her during a few of the more torchy, ridiculous ballads. She talked to the audience in a weird way, kind of like a children's tv host, or a weatherman, I don't know. When she sang "You Mean the World to Me," she had this intense "You mean the world to me! You mean the world to me! You do!" thing that was a bit much. (Kind of like Oprah's "You get a car! You get a car!" tourettic episode.) And she had one song where she made a saluting hand gesture every time she talked about soldiers, which, as a Boy Scout, I found off-putting. Speaking of gestures, though, she definitely had the Mariah Carey disease where you can't really move your limbs in a normal standard way, and instead look like your puppetmaster thought it would be funny if he made you do the Macarena. It was comical, to say the least.
But am I mad that she had no encore? Or that she didn't sing as much from the new album as I would have liked? Or that I didn't get to go up there and sing and dance for Toni? No, I am not. For all of its faults and oddities, I would never have missed it. You can't miss Toni Braxton.