Best thing about the Bobby Brown package was Shabba Ranks @


Package tours look like real bargains going in. So why do they so often feel like total gyps coming out?

Take the Bobby Brown package that played the Baltimore Arena on Wednesday. On paper, its blend of R&B;, reggae and hip-hop looked great, since in addition to Brown the bill included dancehall star Shabba Ranks, soul siren Mary J. Blige, plus rap-and-pop trio TLC.

Onstage, however, the show was only an intermittent success, with brief bursts of brilliance sprinkled through hours of poor pacing and overlong set changes, and uninspired performances. wonder the audience -- which didn't even half fill the Arena -- rarely offered more than tepid response; in fact, a good quarter of the crowd was gone before Brown finished his set.

Worst of all was the fact that much of what went wrong Wednesday night could easily have been fixed. For instance, having Blige open the show was a mistake; not only were many of the fans still on their way in after her 7:30 starting time, but she clearly carried more weight with the ticket buyers than the third-billed TLC.

Then there was the PA problem. As anyone who has ever attended one of these affairs knows, the lower an act is on the bill, the worse its sound is going to be. Last night was no exception. Although the sound for Bobby Brown's set was perfectly clear, it tended to mud during Shabba Ranks' performance, and left parts of TLC's segment (particularly those that found T-Boz on the mic) all but inaudible.

Not that a better mix would have helped TLC all that much. Even though the trio's stage show was determinedly upbeat and energetic, its relentless choreography and show-bizzy enthusiasm overwhelmed the music, diminishing the impact of otherwise enjoyable material like "Baby Baby Baby" and "Ain't Too Proud To Beg."

Still, TLC's overactive approach to the concert stage was nothing compared to Bobby Brown's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink strategy. Apparently taking his cues from the last two Hammer tours, Brown arrived with a massive stage set, a huge crew (including eight dancers, seven instrumentalists, five back-up singers, a rapper and a disc jockey) and an array of lights and pyrotechnics.

Yet despite all the razzle, the show rarely dazzled. Brown seemed on autopilot for most songs, merely going through the motions during "Humpin' Around," "Don't Be Cruel" and "Girlfriend." Occasionally, he did give a glimpse of the soulful charisma that made him a star -- "That's the Way Love Is" was particularly fine -- but more often than not he squandered his talent on overlong arrangements.

As such, it was Shabba Ranks who came away as the star of the show.

Shabba's musical might and sexual magnetism won the crowd over, provoking more booty-pumping enthusiasm with

"Housecall," "Mr. Lover Man" and "Wicked in Bed" than Bobby Brown managed in his entire set. Could it be that Shabba by himself would have been a better bargain than the Bobby Brown package as a whole?

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