A Bizarre, and Sometimes Electrifying, Tribute to Michael Jackson, Luther and Marvin at Miller Outdoor Theater

Saturday Rocks Off and a friend attended Keeping the Music Alive, a free concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The show was a tribute in honor of the late Michael Jackson, the later Bernie Mac, the even later Gerald Levert, the later still Luther Vandross, and the even yet later still Barry White - not to mention Marvin Gaye, the latest (and greatest) of them all.

A revolving cast of singers assumed the roles of the deceased soulsters while a tight backing band - guitar, bass, two back-up singers, keyboards, a drummer, percussionist and Kyle Turner's volcanic sax - provided the music all night. The performances were exceedingly well-paced, if the music wasn't always.

We missed the first hour (and thus all of the tribute to the Mac-Man) and came in on Scott Gertner attempting with little success to approximate Barry White's elephantine basso rumble on "Practice What You Preach." A raucous family on the next blanket over wasn't impressed. "That fool messed up the words," said a young man clutching a Bud Light. "He needs to sing it right."

The show moved on through Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On?" and a rollicking version of Levert's "Casanova" and on to a Vandross song, which found the singer bringing the house down by literally dropping to the ground and rolling across the stage.

A little later the announcer intoned "Please welcome to the stage... Scott Gertner!" and the blanket next to us erupted in beery wrath. "Not that fool again!" groaned the young man with the perpetual Bud Light. Gertner's act went over a little better this time, especially when he led a half-dozen or so scantily clad women from his SkyBar retinue through a delightfully cheesy and sassy choreographed dance routine.

The band cleared out for the show's piece de resistance: a half-hour dance tribute to Michael Jackson. As huge pictures of the fallen King of Pop looked on from a Jumbotron at the back of the stage, a revolving cast of five or ten dancers tripped the light fantastico to a medley of Michael's hits, culminating, of course, in a reenactment of the second-most-famous moonwalk in history.

The band came out at the end of the dance routine and the Jackson tribute continued with a rendition of "Remember the Time," which, oddly, had more people dancing than any of the other (of the often superior and far more famous) songs all night long. Which is not to say that people were sitting still - all around us, kids and toddlers were getting their groove on all night long, while the adults mostly kicked back.

After the Michael tribute, the MC brought up the house lights and hectored the crowd about health and wellness and took up a collection for the cause. "I know he ain't passin' the hat," said the Bud Light wiseacre. "This ain't Sunday services yet."

The vast majority of children in attendance were shepherded off the hill at the end of the Michael tribute, and the show shifted gears into baby-making music mode. There followed a long, long, long and almost completely tedious segment honoring Luther Vandross, to us the most boring soul singer of all time.

But even the Luther tribute had a skin-raising moment of triumph: Mary Griffin's vampy star turn. Rocks Off doesn't know which Lufer tune Griffin was doing, but as the Louisiana-bred Katrina transplant roared "Heaven! Heaven! Heaven!" and led the band through a crescendo, we were utterly mesmerized. (She plays the Red Cat a lot - go check her out.)

The slow and sensuous quiet-storm vibe continued with a tribute to the subgenre's patriarch: Marvin Gaye. The band opened with "Distant Lover," so we figured that this opening bid signaled an extended foray into Gaye's schmaltzier side. By this point, after sailing the syrupy seas of LuferLand, we were more eager to hear something lively like "Got to Give It Up," which seemed highly unlikely at this hour. So we took our leave on the relative high note of "Distant Lover" and its echoes of ghetto-symphonic splendor of Gaye's "What's Going On?"

Fizzling fade-out or no, it was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday night. And the kids liked it too. On the way home, we passed a boy who looked about ten, who said to his mother, "Mama, that tribute to Michael Jackson was tight!"

Indeed it was.
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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax