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War of the Sexes

Luther Vandross turns on the women and leaves the men cold at the Paramount

By Nicky Baxter

It seems all the girls love Luther Vandross. A Vandross concert is something akin to observing a Pavlovian experiment on a mass scale. When he opens his mouth, women salivate. It works every time. Certainly it worked the night of Jan. 28 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

The same cannot be said for opening act, the Braxtons. Sure, the three women were gorgeous, outfitted in slinky hot-pink dresses. But all looks and marginal talent make Tamar, Towanda and Trina as interchangeable as the girl groups of yore.

Vandross, on the other hand, has emerged as one of neo-soul's leading stylists after years of dues paying. He's done jingles for Burger King and background vocals for countless acts ranging from David Bowie (during the latter's short-lived Thin White Duke phase) to Chaka Khan and Barbra Streisand.

Vandross' status as the top crooner of fantasy love songs was confirmed by the packed house. Women and men alike dressed as if it were the event of their lives--maxed out in flamboyant skirts, dresses and suits.

"Stop the Love" got things off to a rousing start as Vandross worked the crowd like a classy circus barker. Vandross doesn't do much moving around onstage; the tuxedoed singer simply waddled from one end of the stage to the other like an overfed penguin. Which was enough to prompt the kind of hand-waving and whooping normally reserved for gospel church service.

And, truth be told, Vandross' vocal pyrotechnics--the shimmering glisses, the heaven-bound swoops and abrupt baritone plunges--do remind one of contemporary nonsecular singing, especially when his phalanx of backing vocalists chimed in call-and-response style. Still, like much of contemporary gospel praise-singing, Vandross' vocals emphasize slickness over substance.

True, from a technical standpoint, his performance was far superior to his show at the now-defunct Circle Star. His choice of material was certainly better; he made sure to sing his greatest bits, including "A House Is Not a Home" and "Here and Now," a maudlin ballad straight outta Disneyland that nonetheless prompted at least two women sitting behind me to weep.

Which raises the inevitable question: Just what is it about Vandross that drives women absolutely batty while leaving many men cold? (Prior to the show, one guy admitted he was there only because his ladyfriend threatened to leave him if he didn't go.) As I scanned the audience, I couldn't help but note the body language of the mostly coupled audience: The women leaning forward, starry-eyed and gape-mouthed; the men sitting stiffly, arms folded with blank expressions.

Guess that old blues line is really true: What the men don't know, the little girls understand.

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