On his 2010 tour, Usher indulged in a bit of hero worship that spoke volumes about his self-concept. The lights in the arena went down, and a pair of shoes that looked like they’d been taken straight from a Michael Jackson video arrived at center stage via conveyor belt. The star slipped them on and danced a tribute, mimicking many of MJ’s signature moves, including the moonwalk and the anti-gravity lean.
Usher knows that there will never be another Michael Jackson. Yet as the most reliable male R&B hitmaker of the last 20years, he believes it’s his responsibility to carry on tradition.
It’s been a decade since the release of Confessions, Usher’s best album and biggest seller. That set contained four No. 1hits, including “Yeah!,” the song that ate the summer of 2004. Since then, other singers — notably Chris Brown and Trey Songz — have been nipping at his heels. But neither is as complete an entertainer as Usher is, or has a repertoire as deep. Usher has been leaning heavily on Confessions material on his latest tour, which stops at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Saturday. He’s also premiering new material from a set that could drop any old time.
Some great musicians are emulators at heart, and that doesn’t take anything away from their accomplishments. But a precious few invent an entirely new dialect within the language of pop, and Johnny Marr is one of those musicians. Marr is the greatest six-string stylist to emerge during the 1980s — a daring, imaginative player whose bright jangle rescued then-contemporary rock from the mire of feedback and overdriven squall it was stuck in. His work with The Smiths has been imitated by thousands of successful bands, but nobody has ever been able to recapture the effervescent quality of his playing on songs like “William, It Was Really Nothing” and “This Charming Man.” Since the dissolution of The Smiths in 1987, Marr has often seemed uncertain about how to proceed. He did not immediately launch the brilliant solo career that many of his followers expected he would, choosing instead to serve as a session musician and sideman for a series of projects most notable for their modesty. Although he cut a middling record in 2003 with a group called the Healers, Marr did not release his first true solo album until last year. In early October, he followed up that album,The Messenger,with Playland, and he’ll be playing selections from both sets at The Stone Pony on Friday night. He’s certain to do a few Smiths songs, too — fans wouldn’t let him offstage if he didn’t.
James Maddockhas been in showbiz for years —he was making popular records with punk-rock bands in Britain in the ’80s. Since he came to the New World and launched a solo career about a decade ago, he’s become a Jersey favorite. Springsteen loves him, which is no surprise, since his storytelling songs split the difference between the Boss and Philip Chevron of the Pogues. His full band set was one of the highlights of the 2013 Light of Day main event at the Paramount Theater; expect something similarly earnest and spirited when Maddock brings his group to TheWoodland in Maplewood (for the latest in the Rent Party series of charity concerts) on Friday, andMexicali Live in Teaneck on Saturday.
I wasn’t craving a new Randy Newman album last year, and I won’t be craving one three years from now. I’d welcome one at any point, mind you — anything from Randy is better than nothing, and that includes the movie songs that keep him in the black. But the last three non-soundtrack sets of Newman songs were all released at the end of two-term Presidential administrations, and though he probably wasn’t intending State of the Nation addresses, that’s the way they all play back.Land of Dreams, an autobiographical album, summed up the Reagan years with songs about violence and greed and the (further) disintegration of California. Bad Love captured the Clinton-era sleaze and the emptiness of the aspirational ’90s lifestyle with ruthlessness and humor.Harps and Angels, Newman’s chatty 2008 set and his most recent full-length, was a full-out assault on the militarism of the Bush years and income inequality. There is nobody I’d rather get a valedictory address on the Obama administration from than Randy Newman; in fact, I’m counting on it. At 70 years old, Newman is slowing down a little, but he was spry enough to mount a reading of Faust, his lovably absurd musical, in Manhattan this summer. Here’s hoping the old pundit has some fresh commentary for us at the McCarter Theatre Centerin Princeton on Monday.