Valentine’s Day at the El Rey Theater. A good choice as a romantic destination, and certainly cheap, as the NBA All-Star weekend had turned the entire city into one great big party. El Rey patrons got a glimpse into the future of a genre of music — R&B/neo-Soul/urban, whatever it’s called these days — that is desperate for an identity and direction. Hip-hop has so dominated music that the palatable, dare we say, “safe” medium has been downgraded as (shudder) urban muzak; not edgy enough to satisfy hip-hop’s anger, yet catchy enough to please the younger fringes in the baby boom generation.
Anthony Hamilton’s too-short set was the most satisfying of the evening, what with his pleasing Southern gritty and gospel-drenched approach. His “aww-shucks” appeal also reflected his sartorial style — oversized trucker’s cap and burnt orange suit jacket. Hamilton started with the slow burning “Since I Seen’t You,” a tender, vulnerable ballad. This Charlotte, N.C., native fluctuates between a D’Angelo falsetto, a bottom-feeding Will Downing baritone and a banshee scream reminiscent of Wilson Pickett at his finest.
Hamilton was able to convey sensitive and insightful lyrics in so large a space, especially on “Lucille,” a song about finding comfort in a bottle, and “Coming Where I’m Coming From,” which Hamilton closed out in a frenzied near-holy roller spasm. Hamilton is on the verge of breaking R&B/Soul’s dusty image, and this concert was a definite step in the right direction.
Opener Calvin Richardson, along with Hamilton, is a new breed of promising urban male vocalists. His distinct, wiry tenor conveyed a soulful persona with songs that, given time, will connect with audiences as they become familiar with his works. He had a false start in 1999 with “Country Boy,” a critically acclaimed piece that failed to overcome its title and image of Richardson sporting a cowboy hat. Richardson did amp the love quotient when he stripped off his denim jacket to reveal a well-sculpted body during “Keep Pushing,” off 2003’s “2:35 PM” album, and cemented his status with women in the front row when he passed out Valentine roses.
Rhian Benson bravely followed Richardson with a moody set that included themes of universal brother/sisterhood and love relationships on “Say How I Feel,” “Gold Sky” and her opener, “Words Hurt Too.” But as effective as Hamilton and Richardson were in conveying their lyrics with accomplished, powerful voices over an inferior sound system, Benson may work better in a smaller setting.