“I’ve been doing this shit for 20 years,” Usher told an exuberant crowd on Tuesday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills outside Detroit during the first U.S. concert of his UR Experience Tour. His tone was one of bemusement, his look a mix of pride and subtle disbelief.
But it was that history that’s given Usher Raymond IV reason to be on the road at all this fall.
With his UR album still a work in progress, he’s using the 27-date run, which kicked off Saturday in Montreal, as a combination of celebration and contextualization, taking stock of where he’s been and — via new songs such as “She Came To Give It To You” and “Good Kisser” — where he is and where he’s headed. It’s a lot to tackle, and at the Palace, Usher didn’t fully come to grips with it. He scored his share of touchdowns but also fumbled through significant portions of the nearly two-hour show.
He certainly spotlighted many of the attributes that have made him a global superstar with five platinum-or-better albums and 15 top 10 Hot 100 hits — especially a smooth, charismatic showmanship and nimble dance moves kicking off from the show’s opening blast of “My Way” and “OMG.” His winning, easygoing manner was on display too, never too chatty and frequently ready with wry asides; after asking how many single women were in the crowd, he told the single men, “Y’all came to the right place…Don’t say I never gave you nothin’.”
And there was no denying the hit-parade setlist featuring all or parts of nearly 30 songs, many fortified with ensemble choreography from Usher and his eight dancers on a triangular stage featuring small platforms that lifted the ensemble up and down throughout the night.
When it worked — on slinky versions of “You Make Me Wanna…” and “Lil Freak,” a tight upbeat rendition of “She Came To Give It To You” and a sweaty, extended workout on “Twisted” — the UR Experience was a dynamic delight. And a stripped-down segment that included lighter treatments of “There Goes My Baby” and “U Got it Bad” was a welcome change of pace. But the show lacked focus and too often felt like a random recitation of hits, with some misfired arrangements — particularly messy, megamix-style treatments of “My Way,” “OMG” and “Love In This Club” — and plenty of speed bumps that undermined Usher’s intent.
The latter included an off-the-cuff mid-show medley that swept haphazardly through favorites such as “My Boo,” “I Don’t Mind” and Chris Brown and Usher’s “New Flame” and simply went on too long. So did the de riguer ritual of bringing women onto the stage to dance during “Bad Girl” as well as a vampy version of “Good Kisser” that wore out its welcome with a string of solo spots for the dancers; it didn’t help that both were placed back-to-back late in a show that already felt long. And Usher’s short drum solo put him uncomfortably close to the stage antics of protege Justin Bieber.
Usher and company — including a nine-piece band and three backing vocalists — did reclaim the momentum with a closing blast of “U Don’t Have To Call,” “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” and “Yeah” as well as the anthemic encore “Without You.” But it was telling that the crowd was streaming out throughout that part of the show, much like guests who were happy to drop in on the party but felt no need to see how it wound up.