This concert review was originally published in the Washington Post’s Style section on October, 14, 1988.
Michael Jackson is the Body Electric.
At Capital Centre last night, he proved so interesting to watch that he could have sounded like Tiny Tim and nobody would have complained.
Well, almost nobody, and since he sounded just like Michael Jackson, it all worked out in the end.
For all the good singing -- and there was plenty of that -- it always seems to come back to movement and emotion with Jackson. He is a dancer beyond compare, the embodiment of the perpetual motion principle, seemingly boneless, with lubricating oil in his veins. This is a man with more moves in a night than Nationwide has in a year. You could hate him, but you couldn't take your eyes off him.
And for two hours, the full house in Landover didn't, as Jackson ran around the open, uncluttered stage and through 17 songs -- most of them No. 1 hits from his "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" albums. There were a few bows to the Jackson Five era via "the old-fashioned songs done the old-fashioned way" (with the same old-fashioned intro, as a matter of fact), but the night was above all a celebration of the Jackson liberation in the early '80s.
He kicked things off with his traditional opener, "Wanna Be Startin' Something," all thundering groove and kinetic choreography, and ended by turning Cap Centre into a church with the gospel positivism of "Man in the Mirror." In between, Jackson offered the utterly brilliant -- "Billie Jean," in particular -- and the videomatic (which applied to all too many songs).
This is a big show -- a seven-piece band, four backup singers, four dancers, a half-dozen costume changes, lasers and special effects galore -- but the spectacle often seemed superfluous, not to mention rigid.
Jackson is so charismatic that he could work with backing tapes and a single spotlight and be just as effective; but he's very much the traditional showman and given to packaging. And the bigger the package, the less the leeway, the more flawless the execution.
You don't get much spontaneity in this show, but rather the calculated histrionics of crocodile tears on "She's Out of My Life" and a plethora of stiff Las Vegas-meets-MTV dance routines that are such a contrast to Jackson's fluid expression as to be laughable.
He is, of course, the Michaelangelo of dance steps, the Edison of motion. The fabled moonwalk is trotted out several times, most notably on "Billie Jean," and often it's done in double time. In "Billie Jean," the visceral and visual highlight of last night's concert, Jackson introduced a familiar sequined glove and some startling new steps. One is, well, it's a ... okay, it's hard to describe, but think of ... sidewalking. There's also what can only be called ankle arabesques, sort of highly focused pas de deux. It's ridiculously breathtaking.
The whole night Jackson was the man in motion: gangster-tough on "Smooth Criminal," menacing on "Thriller," tensile on "Beat It," and utterly elastic just about everywhere. Sometimes, this wasn't entirely appropriate. On the ballad "Human Nature," Jackson's movements were too eerie and uptempo; and several times throughout the night, he resorted to those silly macho crotch grabs that surfaced with "Bad." They're bad (the old-fashioned bad).
Highlights included a frenetic "Heartbreak Hotel," a lucid and exuberant "The Way You Make Me Feel" and an ebullient "Beat It," in which Jackson resurrected the old red jacket (with neon lights added), discarded the scary makeup, swung out above the audience on a crane and turned his dancers into a quartet of "Cats"-like metaloids. Meanwhile, his female guitar player got turned on, straying into Electric Lady-land, but it was just another silly effect that probably went over better with the younger element in the crowd.
That crowd -- a rainbow of colors and generations -- was hard to read: Until the last five numbers, the applause died quickly after almost every song, as if it were a completed pass at RFK Stadium. There was little sustained enthusiasm until "Beat It," and although it was full-throttle from then on, the earlier part of the show seemed to lack momentum -- odd, considering the expectations.
As a singer, Jackson seems to bow to the physical demands of the song before the melodic ones. He's most effective on the falsetto whoops that punctuate those songs and, when he's got a little room to maneuver, he can be quite evocative. Absent the twitches, "Human Nature" and "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" are solid ballads. Even the raucous boast of "Bad" gains in urgency, though it's the gospel fervor and pure emotion of "Man in the Mirror" that suggests Jackson can sometimes approach the levels of his dancing with his singing. Elsewhere he's less spontaneous and less effective for it.
Jackson's band is tight but soulless, superb musicians without much to say, though they get a long showcase just before the concert shifts into high gear (this is a good time to head for the restrooms and even bless the long lines). As for the dancers, they're just silly, energetic but silly.
Michael Jackson? On stage, past the hype and expectation, he finally seems real again, not at all surreal. The stage, the singing, the dancing -- they combine to offer release and artistic redemption.
Everything else falls away before the spinning dervish. Sometimes, watching him as the center of his spectacle, you feel you're inside a planetarium with a familiar galaxy and a single burning star at its center. There's talk that this is Michael Jackson's last solo tour -- it's also his first -- and if that should be the case, it's his loss as well as ours.
Jackson returns to the Capital Centre for sold-out shows next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.