Billy Ocean has the makings of a first-rate soul singer. Saturday night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, his low tenor rode the contagious dance grooves with sure instincts, and he filled the catchy pop melodies with a booming voice and grainy tone. Unfortunately, his material was so slight that his abilities as a dramatic interpreter were left untested. In fact, most of the songs seized on one idea, pumped it up with a powerful beat and then carried it on much too long.
Ocean's big voice filled these simplistic arrangements to the brim, whether it was the rock-flavored "Loverboy," the island-flavored "Stay the Night" or the pop balladry of "Suddenly." Ocean, born in Trinidad but based in London, assembled a fine 10-member troupe from London, Los Angeles, the Caribbean and China. The evening's biggest revelation, though, was backing singer P. P. Arnold, who overwhelmed Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is the Deepest" with a powerful gospel-soul lead vocal.
Meli'sa Morgan, a former backup singer for Chaka Khan, has a nice voice and may have more hair than anyone else in pop music. What she lacks is any sense of what makes a song work. In the opening set, the original material by Morgan and keyboardist Lesette Wilson proved nothing more than familiar vamps -- either slow or fast -- with no clear story or hook. Her version of Prince's "Do Me, Baby" had none of the taunt or promise of the original; her version of Paul McCartney's "Let It Be" matched a boring lounge vocal with annoying hard-rock guitar.