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Review Sun Jul 18 2010

Sequins and Corporate Excess: The Jordin Sparks Battlefield Tour @ House of Blues, 7/17

JordanSparks1.jpg

Photo by Geoff George

Before Chicago's indie set would begin to move and shake to LCD Soundsystem amid a cloud of booze and pot at Pitchfork in Union Park on Saturday night, a shorter, largely female crowd -- the majority of which wasn't old enough to drink or possibly even to drive -- was screaming and reaching for the stage at House of Blues as various performers of Jordin Sparks' Battlefield Tour did some moving and shaking of their own. The venue and musical acts represented a veritable rabbit hole of corporate entities (Live Nation via House of Blues; Sony Music Entertainment via Sparks' label, Jive Records; FOX Broadcasting company via Sparks' debt to American Idol for her rise to fame after winning the 2006/2007 season; and ad infinitum), and sadly the show itself did little to obscure its surrounding air of capitalist glad-handing.

In addition to the couple guys wearing Mike and Ike-branded shirts and carrying Mike and Ike-branded bags and passing out free, fun-size Mike and Ike packets throughout the show, the two opening acts also displayed a level of promotional zeal that bordered on consumer bludgeoning. Days Difference, a quartet of Old Navy mannequins stolen from the store, introduced their songs with such charming asides as "We have a song we're going to play for you that's on the radio right now, and it's available for purchase on iTunes as well." And Ashlyne Huff, dressed in a sparkling silver vest and leggings as pants, took time between songs to urge people to sign up for her Twitter account, spelling it out to make sure the audience would find it when they got home.

Huff and the members of Days Difference played standard verse-chorus-x-3 pop and pop-rock respectively, but they seemed less stiff than just plain artificial. Their carefree, breezy attitudes seemed choreographed, particularly with Huff, who displayed the same onstage persona her entire set, jumping and falling to the floor and even (at one point) literally pirouetting without ever having made any natural progression to such high energy impulsiveness. Both acts seemed to be having too good a time, like car salesman laughing harder than necessary at your jokes, which made it difficult to tell whether even the smaller details of their performances -- such as the Days Difference's bassist's "I ♥ videogames" T-shirt -- weren't just calculated methods to further evidence an easy-going persona.

Sparks' portion of the show looked to be more of the same promotional pap when a pre-show crowd-warmer began with the following remarks: "What's up y'all? We're excited to bring the Jordin Sparks Tour to Chicago because it's home to one of my favorite companies, and that company is ALLLLLLSTATE!" Astoundingly, bewilderingly, the teens, tweens and parental chaperones clapped and cheered, though they did seem a little less sure about it.

Once Sparks took the stage though, it was at least clear why she was the headliner. There's a fine line between choreographed breeziness and breezy choreography, and she and her backing band and singers found themselves on the right side of it by simply performing rather than performing fun. The set opened with "Battlefield," two of the backup singers entering and breaking into dance while wearing those dust-broom helmets once worn by Roman soldiers, and from there even the guitarist and bassist began doing the same leans and kicks as everyone else. Having multiple backup singers/dancers gave Sparks and Co. the opportunity to act out little skits onstage, Sparks pushing men away when singing about the ones who've done her wrong or hunching her shoulders and looking around when singing about loneliness. The whole thing had the feel of a loose musical, which made it enjoyable as a show even if the music itself stayed pretty same-y. Probably the only truly sonically interesting bit was the finale, during which each person on stage (8 in all) got their own closing solo to riff and improvise around the notes and lyrics of "No Air," the song picking up and slowing down and wandering in and out of varying progressions for close to 15 minutes.

By the end though, Sparks wound up reciting corporate patter of her own, directing everyone's attention to the Allstate booth in the back that was sponsoring some don't-text-and-drive campaign. She then brought up Mike and Ike, also apparently sponsoring a charity, one for cancer. The philanthropy made all the corporate branding easier to wash down, but it was hard not to feel like you were being sold on the companies' kindness.

This is Sparks' first tour with her name at the top of the bill. She's a pure performer, relying on movements, expressions and a powerful voice to present technically proficient songs to a room that's paid a lot of money to see a show. It's not meant unkindly to say her talents might be best suited for Broadway -- which, it turns out, is where she's headed next. Toward the end of the show, she made sure to sing a song from her upcoming role in In The Heights, on Broadway later this year. And she also took the time to encourage all the kids to make tickets to the musical their birthday presents, by which point the Battlefield Tour's level of self-promotion was no longer even analytically interesting.

 
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