Anita Baker takes revelers back in time
By MICHAEL D. CLARK
Prince once mused about partying like it’s 1999, but until Anita Baker took the stage at H’Town’s Arena Theatre on New Year’s Eve, nobody had thought about cuddling like it was 1986.
You remember Baker : the Grammy-winning contralto who defined early R&B with hits such as Sweet Love and Giving You The Best That I Got. Many couples with children ages 13 to 17 certainly remember those sweet songs as the soundtrack to conception.
On Tuesday night at the arena, as 2002 was set to become 2003, a packed house welcomed the opportunity to step back to a time before Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion – a day when romantic balladry was not hyped with dance mixes and guest rappers.
Baker was happy to oblige.
“It’s been so long and we appreciate you coming out,” said Baker , whose stop in Houston is one of the first on a brief tour that kicked off last month. “The question in my mind was `Will they (the fans) be back?’ ”
Answer: In droves.
The New Year’s Eve performance was the second of a two-night stand playing to full houses at the Arena Theatre. As revelers strapped on party hats to accessorize suits and formal gowns, Baker had the added incentive of welcoming back her singing career.
After a seven-year hiatus to raise her children, she was back to reclaim her status as the queen of midtempo love songs. Thirty-five minutes before the clock struck 2003, the crowd was already immersed in her quiet storm.
As recently as 1994, the year Baker released her last album, Rhythm of Love, the need for such a comeback for an artist of Baker ‘s stature was unthinkable. There was a time, before rap had taken wing and rock was stuck somewhere between new wave and grunge, when Baker was a staple of both urban and adult contemporary radio. Unlike current divas such as multimedia J.Lo or the winking and dancing Carey, Baker was understated.
Beginning with Sweet Love, her eight-year string of hit singles and seven Grammy awards was all a product of her easy, smoky delivery. Anyone’s pipes can get a little rusty during a seven-year break, however.
Baker apparently has been taking care of the plumbing pretty well.
Warming up her band and trio of backup singers with a few low and lulling scales, she found her whispering-to-powerful glide on a rich, orchestrated version of Sweet Love. An ebony grand piano adorned with roses and candelabras led the full band in the orchestra pit through the big-band swing on It’s Your Love and Caught Up In the Rapture.
A new opportunity has afforded Baker the chance to reintroduce upbeat dance tracks that often got pushed aside on radio in favor of ballads. Same Ole Love (365 Days A Year) was a scat-littered funk jam in which Baker was not dependent on the long, arcing scales for which she is best known.
For longtime fans, she threw in a brief snippet of No More Tears, a gospel song she originally recorded in her pre-solo days with the group Chapter 8.
When midnight arrived, Baker welcomed it with a powerful rendering of Auld Lang Syne, followed by a gospel choir stomp to purge any lingering negativity from the previous year. She toasted 2003 with a flute of champagne and gave her two young sons a tearful hug.
With that, Baker began 2003 back on the performance stage where she belongs. Few who stayed for her tender renderings of Just Because and Lead Me Into Love could have found a better way to spend the first hour of a new year.
Copyright © 2003 Houston Chronicle