Live: Nelly Furtado Can't Dance

nellyf.jpgShe's not really that much like a bird

Nelly Furtado + Kenna + Saukrates Theater at Madison Square Garden June 7, 2007

Nelly Furtado's transition from earnest post-Lilith Fair folk-popper to slickly sexed-up new-wave future-pop hitmaker is one of the smartest and most surprising pop-music transformations in recent memory. A couple of years ago, her career was basically over. She'd gone double-platinum with her Starbucksy debut album, but then she'd taken time off to have a kid and dropped a clunker of a world-music album. And then, out of nowhere, she came back to omnipresence again, with a sound that had basically nothing in common with they style that'd made her popular in the first place; you have to admire that tenacity and ingenuity. Furtado's team-up with Timbaland also yielded three great singles, which is exactly three more great singles than I ever expected to hear from Nelly Furtado. (Actually, even more miraculously, it's four great singles if you count "Give It to Me.") Still, she's far from being a complete package. Loose, the album that brought her back to omnipresence, is an all-over-the-place stylistic mess; last year, I called it "hot Chinatown garbage." Still, those singles have held up beautifully through months of overexposure, and she helped to spur Timbaland's own post-bodybuiding comeback over the past year. Furtado first teamed up with Tim on the remix to Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" in 2000, and even though I hated it at the time, the track did make canny use of her quirky high-pitched pseudo-scat. For a while at the beginning of the decade, I was praying for Furtado's infatuation with rap to end; her unbelievably obnoxious hook for "Ching Ching" might've killed Ms. Jade's once-promising career. But by the time she got around to releasing "Promiscuous" a few years later, she'd figured out exactly how to make her voice work in Timbaland's hall-of-mirrors production, and that collaborative relationship is what gave her a second crack at pop stardom. It's been a schizophrenic career; she's dipped into so many genres that she now seems vaguely uncomfortable whenever she tries any of them. Last night at MSG, her attempts to turn them into something cohesive only highlighted the vast divides.

Last night started out with Furtado the pop star: she emerged from behind a titanic disco-ball flanked by spastically pirouetting backup dancers and wearing a plastic minidress that looked like it belonged on a comic-book stewardess. There's something charmingly tentative about Furtado's pop-star phase; she tries really hard, but it ends up looking somehow wrong. Her stage set, with the disco ball and the bright-white staircase and the blinking-lights backdrop, looks like she got it on loan from the producers of the Eurovision song contest telecast. Her backing dancers were hilariously over-demonstrative, flouncing all over the place like they got lost on the way to the Rent touring-company auditions. And Furtado herself dances like a drunk secretary at an office Christmas party. She came onstage doing "Say It Right," and her band turned out to be pretty good at pulling off Timbaland's space-pop productions, even if her live drummer never had a chance at replicating Tim's tricky counter-rhythms. Opener Saukrates gamely did double-duty in Furtado's band, covering all sorts of miscellaneous intangibles: whaling away on percussion, playing hypeman, recreating Timbaland's weird beatboxy vocal tics, reciting Tim's raps. But things got dicier whenever Furtado dug deeper into her catalog, if only because she couldn't decide how to fit those older songs in. "Turn Off the Light" got a drum-heavy robo-skank Euroclub remix, which didn't fit the song at all. Meanwhile, she gave "Powerless (Say What You Want)" a straight-up Paula Cole read, and it was the right choice for the song, but the visual dissonance of the backup dancers and the keytaur player just made it weird. As confused as pop-star Nelly could be, though, she was never boring. I wish I could say the same thing for balladeer Nelly. Half an hour into the show, she changed into a ball-gown and set about attacking the snoozey ballads from the second half of Loose. That mini-set had bright moments, including a tender acoustic take on "No Hay Igual" and a singalong cocktail-jazz cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." But most of it was just awful, and the attempts at spectacle didn't help: the dancers doing a weird prom pantomime on "Showtime," Nelly strumming on a white acoustic guitar nearly as big as her on "All Good Things (Come to an End)." And so it was a blessed relief when pop-star Nelly reemerged for the show-closing segment, especially on the monstrous encore "Maneater," which benefits enormously from a loud sound system. "I'm Like a Bird" still sucks, though.

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Voice review: Nick Catucci on Nelly Furtado's Loose Voice review: Amy Linden on Nelly Furtado's Folklore

If Furtado's pop-star reinvention is an unlikely triumph, the story of opener Kenna is its opposite: a similarly trapped-between-worlds artist who's been groomed to be enormous but who can't seem to find an audience. He's probably most famous for the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink where a whole bunch of music-industry types rave about his potential for massive stardom and then admit total confusion about why his first album never sold anything. That first album, New Sacred Cow, was produced by the Neptunes' Chad Hugo, and apparently the Neptunes are doing their best to give their high-school friend a second shot at stardom. At last night's show, the Neptunes introduced him, and Pharrell got a huge scream from the mostly-female crowd when he stepped onstage. I was more amped to see Chad, who basically never goes out in public. On Kenna's last song, both of them came out from the wings to dance, and the sight of Chad dancing on a Madison Square Garden stage, even the smaller one, wasn't one I'll soon forget. Has Chad ever danced onstage before? In any context? Kenna didn't do a whole lot to justify all the build-up. As a singer, he owes a whole lot to the portentous basso moans of Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan. But his band bulldozes the jittery synthpop of his records with a whole lot of fuzzed-out powerchords, and so he ends up sounding onstage something like a marginally funkier version of second-album Killers. He also looks pretty uncomfortable and out-of-sorts onstage, alternately striking messianic rock-star poses and fumbling through goofy Blake Lewis robot-dances, keeping his baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes the whole time. His between-song patter also needs work: "If you like these songs, I'd like you to, um, hear more of them." I've been listening to the songs on his MySpace page this morning, and they're really good, sinuous and dark. But his live show makes for a pretty terrible entry-point, and all the Neptunes cameos in the world aren't going to change that.

Voice review: Hobey Echlin on Kenna's New Sacred Cow

As for Saukrates, he's a Toronto rapper, a part-time Redman weed-carrier, and a potential winner in any Lil Jon lookalike contest, but he really thinks he's the next big thing. He came onstage last night playing a green electric violin. Then he rapped over a sample from Phantom Planet's "California." He strikes a whole lot of Lenny Kravitz rock-star poses, pretending like he's about to take off his sunglasses but never actually doing it. Between songs, he says stuff like this: "All of y'all can become a part of this experience; all you gotta do is rock with me." He also makes a fake echo effect after some songs by saying "thank you" a bunch of times and getting quieter every time. He has this sing-rapping style that's somewhere between Wyclef and the guy from Gym Class Heroes. A huge, long-haired metal guy with a flying-V guitar came out to play with him on the first and last songs, both of which were Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." This guy could never come from anywhere other than Canada. Fucking hilarious.

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