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R. Kelly brings Single Ladies Tour to the Arie Crown

The tour is only two weeks old and it is something to behold.

R. Kelly performs at the Arie Crown Theater on Thursday October 25, 2012.
R. Kelly performs at the Arie Crown Theater on Thursday October 25, 2012.
Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Having fun with the single ladies (Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze)

There is not much love for a single guy on a rainy Thursday night in Chicago.

Unless you were fortunate enough to stumble into R. Kelly’s “The Single Ladies Tour” which made a one-night stand (to be repeated Oct. 26) at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place.

Tight skirts. Shrieking. Low cut tops. More shrieking.

It was like being at an Oprah taping.

It was one of the weirdest shows I have seen in recent memory……

The Single Ladies Tour is only two weeks old and it is something to behold. I like the operatic range of R. Kelly’s voice and his last two albums “Write Me Back” and “Love Letter” honor the classic soul of his hometown fathers like Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway. To me there is no better sound than soul music.

But on Thursday Kelly became such a cliche playing up to the ladies—there was even an ample “Ladies Only” section at the front of the stage– his gifts were mostly lost in all the nonsense. And this isn’t the first time a sexed up soul singer toured in a tribute to estrogen. The late great Teddy Pendergrass was all about bumps in the night during his 1978 “For Ladies Only” tour.

Fronting an eight-piece band including three backing singers Kelly covered much of best known songs in abbreviated medley style: “Bump n’ Grind,” “Fiesta,” “Hotel,” and the steady and heavy dual synths that replicated the flute parts of the Stevie Wonder-influenced “Snake.” These mash-ups were premature evacuation. Sorry about that.

The 95-minute concert began with an angelic Kelly strolling down a flight of white stairs. He wore all white including a white sport jacket with “S-I-N-G-L-E” flickering on and off down his left arm.

I gotta’ get me one of those.

White confetti dropped from the ceiling. The stage was framed with two white “Single Bars” complete with drinks, bartenders and three white stools each. Four women from the audience, single I presume, were recruited to sit at the bars.

Kelly shouted out, “Single ladies make some noise!

He did this a lot.

Almost as much as he grabbed his crotch.

After dealing a snippet of his Notorious B.I.G. collaboration “F——-g You Tonight,” Kelly declared he was going to sing what he felt. Then he admitted, “I’m horny. I do get turned on by my music. I’ve had babies to my own f——-’ music! I tried listening to other songs but that didn’t work.” Kelly added that he broke up with his girl friend last week–‘true story” because she didn’t want to have a child with him.

The interlude before “Sex in the Kitchen” and a “Trapped in the Closet” rap involved Kelly sitting on a white throne at stage center. He judged five women who danced one by one on a small stage on the south side of the concert hall. People helped Kelly make his decision by booing and cheering. The air of objectification seemed odd considering that 70 percent of the audience consisted of African-American women. He returned to his 1993 debut smash solo album for a jagged version of “12 Play.”

There was a rare moment of integrity when Kelly, accompanied only by piano, nailed an opera piece which he dedicated to his Chicago music teacher Lena McLin, a gospel singer whose uncle was “The Father of Gospel” Thomas A. Dorsey. The lights then went dark and Kelly played hide and seek chanting, “I’m in the audience. I’m sitting right next to you…..” After a few minutes of this Kelly actually appeared a section over from me wearing a black fedora. He grabbed a woman (a plant for sure) from the audience, brought her on stage and had her shackled in a white cage. A white sheet was draped over the cage as the audience watched shadows of the two performing a love act.

The same kind of shtick was likely going on at the same time over at the Admiral Theater.

But the show bottomed out when Kelly decided to host an event which he called “Kell’s Karaoke.” He actually took a break from singing, sat down at the bar, had a “drink,” smoked a cigar and listened to the audience sing snippets of his hits. He even delivered a drink to the ladies section. This was just a weird waste of time.

As the concert headed down the home stretch–with equal amounts of rambling talking and music–Kelly made his wishes that “Chicago and every city around this world would stop this damn violence,” he wished the best for President Obama, he wished his kids would “put that damn computer down and communicate” and that “the haters would leave me alone.” This is when the audience cheered the loudest. Think about that.

For me, the best part of the show was at the end.

Kelly took off his sunglasses and delivered a stirring version of his biggest hit “I Believe I Can Fly,” which really becomes a sing-along gospel anthem in a live setting. As Kelly hit his last note the white curtain fell down. He quickly reappeared in front of a flickering gold 1960s’ nightclub backdrop in a black cocktail jacket to deliver the stark and stunning soul ballad “When a Woman Loves” from his “Love Letter” album.

It was a moment of beauty that took you back to a time when a song could stand on its own.