Millions More? That would be a tight fit at MCI.
Try thousands -- but only a few.
Despite having been promoted in recent days as an adjunct-slash-finale to the Millions More Movement activities on the National Mall, with the promise of additional star power joining the previously announced lineup of R&B oldies acts, last night's "We Are Family" concert was a big, disappointing bust. Well, maybe not so big: MCI Center was largely empty throughout the five-hour show, with maybe 3,000 people scattered around the cavernous, 21,000-capacity arena.
Entire sections were vacant, as though mandatory evacuations had been ordered. This was true even on the floor and elsewhere around the arena's lower bowl. In Section 101, for instance, there was a solitary man sitting in the very last row, of all places, when Club Nouveau opened the proceedings with a terse, two-song performance that included "Lean On Me," the Bill Withers song that the Northern California group remade into a hit two decades back. Club Nouveau's feisty founding leader, Jay King, appeared so defeated and displeased at the end of the 10-minute set that he basically stormed off the stage.
Three and a half hours later, as the Stylistics sang their familiar, harmonic old soul singles ("Betcha by Golly Wow," etc.), the man remained alone -- almost defiantly so, given that there were so many empty chairs so much closer to the stage.
A memorable "Family" affair, then, this was not: With so much empty real estate in the building, and so little energy coming from the sparse crowd, the performances often had the uneasy, echoey feel of a pre-show sound check.
"Make some noise," the '80s dance-music songstress Lisa Lisa commanded during a relatively spirited rendition of "Head to Toe," which she performed to a prerecorded backing track. The muted reaction was something like the polite applause you might hear from the gallery at a golf tournament.
Still, promoter Antonio Bruton said from the stage, the show goes on, whether "there's 10 people in the seats or 3,000."
The show was originally billed as a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina before Millions More came into play, and it remained as such, with Bruton saying, "We're doing this concert to give back to the people who've suffered the most." He then promised a return, at least for the evening, to R&B's "good old days," a time when the singing was sweet, the harmonies were rich, the basso was profundo -- and the outfits were spangly.
Lisa Lisa wore a sequined top, Meli'sa Morgan pranced around in thigh-high platform boots dripping sparkle, and the five singers from the Dramatics wore black tuxedos with glittery spider webs on the cuffs, pockets and lapels. But the Delfonics outshined them all, and by a wide margin: The trio performed in rhinestone-studded suits with matching capes. (Capes!) "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)"? Why, yes, in fact.
Even the new-school singers did their part to shine: Ruben Studdard, the American Idol, sang two songs -- including a fiery gospel number -- while wearing a diamond-encrusted crucifix.
Originally the concert was to feature 13 artists -- all of them of the old-school R&B variety, save for Studdard, who's a bit of a throwback anyway. Then a host of other, more contemporary names began to surface (Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Common, Erykah Badu), as did the Millions More Movement connection, which a Movement spokeswoman characterized Friday as loose, at best, and very much unofficial. Superstars were added and subtracted, and the lineup was a work in progress in the hours leading up to the concert. Apparently that was true during the show, too: The schedule released by the promoter moments before the event began changed as the night went on, with Doug E. Fresh, Blackstreet and others bypassed without explanation.
Indeed, there was a seat-of-the-parachute-pantsness about the whole thing. Consider the press credentials issued for the event: They said nothing about "We Are Family" or Katrina or Millions More. Instead, they were laminated passes left over from a music industry confab that took place in August. Of 2003.
For all intents and purposes, the show might as well have taken place then, if not 20 years earlier, when many of the artists were much closer to their heyday. Despite the benefit-concert billing and the loose link to the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March, there was little chatter onstage about anything even remotely sociopolitical. Racial inequities, circa 2005? Not a topic for discussion at this "Family" gathering as far as most of the artists were concerned -- even if some have recorded interesting bits of commentary in the past, including the Chi-Lites' "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People."
Instead, the performers -- save for Public Enemy -- generally offered perfunctory comments about the spirit of the day and then returned to their time-tested hits, which were almost completely socially irrelevant. Unless, of course, New Edition's old kiddie-pop tunes "Popcorn Love" and "Mr. Telephone Man" have a Deeper Meaning that we and roughly 2,999 of our closest friends just weren't hearing.
Then again, nobody really needed to say all that much, given Public Enemy's presence on the bill. Just past 11, the firebrand rap group bum-rushed the stage and all but incited a sonic riot with a set of detonative black-power hip-hop.
With a DJ spinning the chaotic soundtracks and two militant figures from the group's S1W security force wielding batons and moving in lockstep, Chuck D. raised his fist . . . and then dropped the hammer in "Bring the Noise" and "Fight the Power." In the former, the stentorian rapper referred to Nation of Islam leader and Millions More figurehead Louis Farrakhan as "a prophet that I think you oughtta listen to" and declared: "Black is back." The latter song was an anthemic call to arms in which the rapper exhorted on his "brothers and sisters" to "fight the powers that be."
Alas, the urgent message didn't exactly reach the masses. Not on this night, anyway.