In only five party-driven numbers, Ricky Martin proved what all the media fuss is about. Martin was faced with jump-starting an audience that had baked for up to nine hours at radio station KIIS’ annual hit parade. And he rewarded their patience with a fiery perf that put several exclamation points on the end of this mixed show. He’s a rare breed in the teen-plus market as he sings pure original songs that draw in influences as disparate as Latin beat and David Bowie vocals. After a day that found its highlights in two veteran acts, Blondie and UB40, Martin was the sign that contemporary pop can be more than excessive samples and one-note singers.
That rare item, a sex symbol with singing talent, Martin was the one performer that solved the riddle of involving video imagery without allowing it to overwhelm the act. He performed with a lively 10-piece band and a handful of salsa dancers, beginning with the smash “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” copying the tone and choreography of the video without becoming a slave to its script.
The “Vida Loca” character was retained for powerful renditions of “Shake Your Bon-Bon” and “The Cup of Life,” which he performed on the Grammy telecast in February, beginning a love affair with the English-speaking public that has even landed him on the cover of Time. Martin will start a 15-city U.S. tour Oct. 21 in Miami with a Nov. 13 show slated for the downtown Staples Center.
Martin far outshone the mainstays of the KIIS playlist and the two acts — Will Smith and Enrique Iglesias — pulled in to support the Warner Bros. pic “Wild Wild West.” Smith, reunited with old partner DJ Jazzy Jeff, refuses to remove himself from his video image, choosing to duplicate live his videos for “Men in Black,” “Goin’ to Miami” and “Wild Wild West.” Latter perf even included rapper Kool Moe Doe, whose “Wild Wild West” sample is paired with Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” throughout the song, and singer Dru Hill, also in the video.
Iglesias, whose week-old “Bailamos” is already a top 5 Latin track, gave a mannered performance that held little of the sex appeal that Universal Music Group is banking on. The choreography gave Iglesias no out and his wandering offstage after one tune was one of the odder moments of the day.
98 Degrees, the second-billed teen act, played their sweet ballads after opening with their one uptempo hit, “Heat it Up.” Dressed in camouflage pants and “Rambo”-esque ammo vests, the quartet stuck to their best-known numbers — “Invisible Man,” “All Because of You” and new single “I Do” — and then attempted to exhibit an edginess by performing a medley of Offspring’s “Fly for a White Guy,” Eminem’s “My Name Is” and Price’s “1999.” They should stick to the ballads.
Britney Spears, who sang over a prerecorded track, was the day’s biggest disappointment. Her voice lacked character and Spears exhibited none of the skills necessary to maintain the momentum the fans supplied when she was introduced. Her five dancers were rudimentary and Spears’ dancing skills were far below that. Her hits, “Sometimes” and “…Baby One More Time,” came across as bland and uninvolving.
The crowd was apathetic and unresponsive early on in Blondie’s 45-minute set. But they pulled them back in with “Call Me” and “One Way or Another.” Singer Debbie Harry sounded sharp and the extraordinary drummer Clem Burke supplied the day’s finest organic beats.
A year shy of a score in recording, UB40 is still a premier interpreter of pop music in classic reggae style. Their manner is endearing and perfect for a summer day; their command of the pace over 50 minutes should be a shining example to the younger performers on the bill. Touring in support of the third volume of “Labor of Love” (Virgin), UB40 hit all the high points with “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” “Red, Red Wine” and “Her I Am (Come and Take Me)” before closing with Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” a point that was lost on this crowd of youngsters and families.
Perhaps most surprising was the energetic set from M.C. Hammer, one of three “Behind the Music” subjects on the bill. Hammer rapped vigorously throughout, all the while keeping pace with his team of dancers, and ventured through the audience while performing. He still loves to base his music on turn of the ’80s funk — Parliament, Grace Jones — and he whole-heartedly dove into his biggest hits, “Can’t Touch This” and “Too Legit to Quit,” before turning to his new church-based self and “That’s Right We Pray.”
Fabrice Morvan, late of Milli Vanilli and now a KIIS DJ, played a couple of songs from his upcoming CD and even tossed in a tender version of MV’s “Blame it on the Rain.” Nancy Sinatra was completely out of place. Jamaican Shaggy opened the day with a lot of rhymes that involve the word “boombastic” and, like Hammer and Smith, leaned on vintage R&B by toasting (Jamaica’s precursor to rap) over Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”