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Kem w/ Eric Benet @ The Riverside Theater

June 18, 2011

Jun. 20, 2011
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Were radio and sales success ever to dry up for Kem, the musically expansive R&B singer should have little trouble paying his bills by motivational speaking or preaching. He engaged in both naturally and forcefully enough at his show Saturday night at the Riverside Theater.

But he shouldn't be changing career paths any time soon, considering his hot streak at adult R&B radio since his 2003 debut album. Looking some like Seal without the facial scars, sounding akin to Al Jarreau minus the flights of jazzy fancy and inhabiting a place as a monogamously respectful loverman as did Al Green at his commercial peak, Kem's a sex symbol that ladies can pant over and guys can respect. A few of the preponderance of couples in attendance were inspired enough by the romantic sounds to dance in the aisles.

Kem inspired sartorially as well as romantically as he, his seven band members and three background singers all hit the stage dressed in loose-fitting white. The brightness of that visual lent the assemblage an aura of angelic visitation befitting the nigh heavenly sounds they produced.

Heaven, it seems, allows for improvisation. Beginning within Kem's opening salvo of three songs in medley form, he allowed his keyboardist, saxophonist, guitarist and trumpeter—who managed some fun tricks with reverb when his instrument left his lips-room for solos to show off their respective chops. He likewise dueted with the two females among his background singers. Including the few numbers Kem helmed from behind a baby grand piano, the thrust of the evening's dozen or so songs ranged from quiet storm to midtempo in a manner suggesting Frankie Beverly and Maze negotiating their breezy funk into fusion jazz terrain. The beats per minute jumped by a few later in the set; those upticks in rhythm included a spirited take on Luther Vandross's "Never Too Much" in deference to the late singer's position as the "king of baby-making music," a title at least one critic wanted to pass on to Kem, he said.

With its lushness and élan, it's easy to hear how Kem's artistry could inspire romantic nights of attempting conception. But his aim isn't merely procreative, either. In introducing "Golden Days," he spoke of how he wrote the song to encourage his daughter and other single women to be complete unto themselves without seeking male affirmation to feel worthwhile. As for the men hearing him, he encouraged them to exhibit the qualities ladies need, including spirituality. As for that quality, Kem gave credit to his reliance on God, whom Kem gave honor in non-sectarian verbiage. 

He and his bandmates didn't take too long to bound back into action for their encores, which well made up for the gap between the end of opening act Eric Benet's set and their initial appearance for the night. Kem's artistry made for a fulfilling of evening of mature, engaging soulfulness.

Milwaukee native Benet added to the lovey, swoony vibe, albeit more minimally. With a keyboardist and “American Idol”
alum Leah LaBelle for background and duet vocals, he made the most of his five songs between shout-outs to local landmarks and affirming "There's no love like hometown love." LaBelle made a fine substitute for original song partner Tamia on Benet's biggest single, "Spend My Life with You," and the '70s vintage vibe shone through from his latest album, Lost in Time, on his recent urban adult contemporary smash, "Sometimes I Cry." He concluded his too-brief set with a lively run through Toto's "Georgy Porgy."


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