Anyone who has worshiped at the alter of sweat-drenched '60s rhythm and blues probably finds it difficult to warm to the modern-day variety.
For the most part, rhythm and blues singers in the '90s are sappy and self-indulgent, content to purr and coo amid mountains of modern technology.
And then there's Luther Vandross.
A vocalist's vocalist, smooth and sophisticated, Vandross demonstrated an ability Wednesday at the Baltimore Arena to seduce 13,000 people with a phrase as simple as "The Night I Fell in Love." In fact, every time he uttered anything remotely amorous, the predominantly female audience went into a collective swoon.
But if Vandross was a powder keg of romance, opening act En Vogue most certainly lit the fuse.
Wednesday's show was the last stop on the "Never Let Me Go" tour for the four "funky divas" -- Cindy Herron, facing impending motherhood, is temporarily quitting live performances -- and they were determined to make the most of it.
From the a cappella strains of "Hold on to Your Love" to the edgy street beats of "Free Your Mind," the quartet commanded the crowd's attention as if it had been the featured attraction.
En Vogue tackled its one-hour set with plenty of energy and a rough-and-tumble charm that revealed a different side to the foursome's studio savvy.
A soft reworking of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" announced a diva-to-diva tribute to R&B;'s female pioneers; the ensuing medley touched on Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Gladys Knight's Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Patti LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade." Sixty minutes of En Vogue wasn't enough.
Still, it was Vandross the crowd clamored for, and he hit the stage running with a spirited rendition of "Power of Love." For the next 90 minutes, Vandross, outfitted in a sparkling white dinner jacket, drew from all the phases of his legendary solo career.
An expert with the heartbreak ballad, he flaunted sexuality in "All My Love," weaved blissful threads of intimacy through "Here and Now," and breathed new life into the Carpenter's "Long Ago" with his charismatic delivery.
With the masses melting at his feet, Vandross felt confident enough to throw a few mood changes our way. "Searchin" was pulse-quickening and percussion-laden, and the firm, rhythmic edge provided by other dance-floor excursions made his ballads seem even more aching.
The smooth baritone, the epitome of champagne and candlelight, had no trouble turning up the heat. And if that's the true test of a romantic crooner, then Luther Vandross is the yardstick by which all others should be measured. Rhythm and blues singers, past or present, surely get no better than this.