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Usher at the Apollo Theater

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In the Hands of a Pro, the Moves Meet the Grooves
Usher Friday night with hits, splits and a handstand. “It's been about four years since we last met," Usher said addressing a sold-out audience as a single acquaintance. “I wanted it to be here at the Apollo."

He let that notion sink in a moment, implicitly evoking a roll call of legendary performers at the Apollo Theater, like James Brown and Marvin Gaye.

Then he asserted his place among them. “This joint right here was one of my No. 1 smashes," he said as a prelude to “Nice & Slow," a typically seductive slow jam.

If the numbers tell the story, Usher has earned his place in the pantheon. His 2004 album, Confessions, has sold more than nine million copies; his new release, Here I Stand made its debut at No. 1 two weeks ago, outselling everything else in the Top 10 combined. Usher's smooth-featured voice and taut, efficient hooks come pretty close to a sure thing, at a time when pop-music blockbusters are few and far between.

The show reflected that outsize reality, with elaborate production values, an expert band, four backup dancers and more than a few of those all-important smashes. Usher took the stage in a red leather jacket and white pants, over the crisp beat of a disco-funk track called “This Ain't Sex." The all-too-obvious reference point was Michael Jackson, who used to evince a similar tendency to imbue lovemaking with cosmic significance.

Usher has a Jacksonian kinetic command. He can glide or grind with dazzling skill and managed two splits and a one-armed handstand within his first few tunes. But his movements often felt polished to a fault, even when he wasn't dancing. After “Nice & Slow" he doffed his jacket, dropped to his knees and ripped open his T-shirt, in a pantomime of passion. Then he slipped into the wings, quickly returning in an all-black ensemble; in his stagecraft, as in everything else, he trades spontaneity for precision.

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