Despite rain, Brian McKnight wins over Artscape crowd
Brian McKnight, who headlined Artscape's Wells Fargo stage on Friday night, still believes in showmanship. (Handout / July 21, 2012)
“Well then, I was wondering, can I be your boyfriend for the next five or six minutes,” asked the multi-platinum R&B singer Brian McKnight to the fan he plucked from the crowd. As she sat on a stool in the middle of the Wells Fargo stage in mid-town Belvedere Friday night, her smile beamed on the big screen.
To the surprise of no one (except perhaps that boyfriend), she agreed. McKnight, in the middle of his 75-minute headlining set, began serenading her with “Another You,” from his 2009 album “Evolution of a Man.”
Toward the end of the song, the new couple stood up and McKnight embraced her in a tender hug, to envious screams. Then he took it a step further, moving the fan’s hands down to his backside.
“There you go!” yelled a female fan like a proud coach.
It was McKnight in charming loverman mode, a comfortable territory for a professional singer with more than a dozen albums and even more Grammy nominations.
Throughout his workman-like Artscape set, McKnight was there to prove he was still capable of stealing girlfriends (check) and that his talents extend beyond the formulaic R&B ballad (check). He wasn’t just there to sing, but to play keyboards and show off his slightly above-average guitar playing.
Leading up to Artscape, a minor controversy arose at the possibility of McKnight performing his newer explicit material (he did not, nor did he mention them). Standing in the semi-full crowd (which emanated a familial vibe of a drama-free backyard barbecue), the concern made more sense.
The crowd's ages ranged from children to grandparents, and they were all there to enjoy a name-brand act’s hits, not to see if he dared to sing his recent headline-grabbing “experiments.” (It also became clear why rapper Wale might not excel in this terrain.) But McKnight kept his entire performance professional and PG-rated.
He remains a believer in showmanship and an entertainer’s duty to engage a crowd. Throughout his set — which included “Shoulda Been Loving You,” “Gimmie Yo Love,” “6, 8, 12” and more — McKnight used old tricks (choreographed bows, held poses at the end of songs) that felt stale to me, but not to smiling audience members on the lawn.
The generational and taste gaps between R&B fans seemed more obvious in this setting. During our interview weeks before Artscape, McKnight said he wrote “If Ur Ready to Learn,” his eyebrow-raising song about the female reproductive system, as a parody of the current R&B staples on the radio. Whereas those artists are willing to talk about sex in ways that leave little to the imagination, McKnight works within the more traditional parameters of the genre. Action is implied but rarely underlined. To these ears, some of those well-worn lyrical tropes get dangerously close to bad poetry, such as when McKnight sings, “It’s possible that I’ve finally found me dream come true / there could never be another you.”
But it can’t be understated how little this crowd cared or how unlikely it was they even considered the thought. From the surrounding smiles and lustful stares, it was clear McKnight had earned his role as the sensitive but dominating alpha male many women desire.
“Would someone out there give me your love?” McKnight asked. (The woman next to me screamed, “You got it, baby!”) “We could do it all night, baby.” (“Oh yeah, we can!”) The exchange proved McKnight is still more than capable of winning over the female portion of his crowds without ever making them feel like they’re chatting with their gynecologist.
During our conversation, McKnight kept talking about how funny he was and how his true fans knew his humor. Besides tripping once with a crass joke (about the rain), McKnight kept the crowd laughing by teasing them with songs they wanted to hear. (At one point, he sat at his keyboard, sang the first words to “One Last Cry” and abruptly stood up, smiling, as the crowd demanded he continue.)
But McKnight wasn’t there to polish stand-up material. He’s a ham and a traditionalist, wanting to win over the women first and foremost. And he can still sing well, cleanly hitting vocal runs with a lean vibrato. By the time his biggest hit, “Back at One,” kicked in at the chorus, he had the entire crowd — which didn’t leave once he took the stage at 7:35 — doing the correlating hand signals of the hook.
While “Back at One” came toward the end of the set, it surprisingly did not close it. McKnight left that for “Fall 5.0,” a track from his 2011 flop, “Just Me.” While that album came and went with little notice, “Fall 5.0” felt like a slight triumph at Artscape.
As McKnight sang the impressionable hook, “I just might fall,” a noticeable contingent of men joined the women on their feet, dancing with a hop in their two-step. An R&B singer winning over the guys, too? Now that’s the mark of a seasoned performer.