Usher Leans on Nostalgia and Second-Nature Moves at Madison Square Garden: Concert Review

Paul Familetti
Usher at Madison Square Garden
The 90-minute spectacle doesn't adequately honor the performer's pop culture contributions or his put-off potential.

The R&B master aims to put his "Voice" coaching back into practice with The UR Experience, a two-decade hit parade

"Sometimes you gotta go through something to get to something," whispered Usher to the sold-out Madison Square Garden audience at Friday night's The UR Experience. It's an adage he included in the liner notes of 2012's Looking 4 Myself and remains appropriate, as the seasoned singer-dancer recently decided to delay the release of his eighth album indefinitely, after two under-performers. He's said he "just ain't ready" and wants more time to tinker with new material, and is stage-jumping in the meantime with the 90-minute arena spectacle that celebrates his 20-year career. But if the 36-year-old is hoping to move forward by thoroughly looking back, it might be a lost cause, because the tour doesn't adequately honor the performer's pop culture contributions and, therefore, his still-untouched potential.

Read more Usher on How He Gets Tough With Justin Bieber and Why He's Not Ready for a New Album

After sets from opening acts DJ Cassidy and August Alsina, the always cool and casual R&B man first triggered fireworks after gliding through smoke in a studded leather jacket and a pair of red sneakers (and later gray glitter, and then gold). From 1997's "My Way" to 2014's "She Came to Give It to You," his archive was beefed up with brass, bass and dance breaks — the latter being a big part of why the arena was packed to capacity for Usher alone. His routines were sharp, effortless and even playful at times, and he didn't need to rely on constant gyrating to entertain (he only showed his abs once, nearly an hour into the show). But outside of an eight-measure solo dance moment during "OMG" (which was censored, along with his other songs, a welcome contrast to August's countless F-bombs), audiences sparsely saw the expert spotlighting his uncanny knack for choreography, as he too often leaned on sporadic movements that must now be second nature to him.

Usher also shined vocally when he took the time to do so: bouncing his gold mic stand during "Caught Up," hitting the top of his range on "Climax," adding extra runs to "U Remind Me," impressively closing "Burn" a cappella, and returning with an encore of a full-out "Without You," which he dedicated to God. Did he really need the randomly activated risers, the 90-second drum solo or the distracting generic graphics of fish and Chinese dragons? A little smoke and fire is fine when watching the song-and-dance man — and even the interlude of asking five female attendees to show the best moves on "Bad Girl" was at least humorous in turning the "sing to someone onstage" trope on its head — but it's odd that the beloved coach of The Voice, on which he authentically encourages insecure contestants to proudly tout their individual strengths, would bring attention to anything but, when it comes to his own retrospective.

See more Usher Takes Madison Square Garden for The UR Experience

Even more so, his notable tracks were often shortened to hit the next memorable chart-topper; at one point, "Confessions Part II" was interrupted for a short chat with the DJ, who then spun snippets of Usher's hottest collaborations while the singer simply stood on the booth and sang along every now and then. And toward the end of the show, Usher brought out his now-signature Davy Crockett-like hat and had the audience loudly sing his set's remaining numbers with the nine-person band.

Though Usher Raymond IV wasn't properly "experienced" in the arena, the singer did thank his fans for gathering to watch him in his element. "Hello — it's been some time since I've been here at Madison Square Garden," he humbly admitted in the middle of the show. "No matter how long it has taken for me to get back here, it's like I'm right back at home." Hopefully on a future tour, MSG ticketholders won't be watching an artist sell himself short.

Set list:

My Way
Love in This Club
You Make Me Wanna…
Lil' Freak
Nice & Slow
U Remind Me
Caught Up
She Came to Give It to You
Dot Com
That's What It's Made For
Hey Daddy / My Boo / I Need a Girl
Lovers and Friends
I Don't Mind
New Flame
There Goes My Baby
U Got It Bad
Bad Girl
Good Kisser
U Don't Have to Call
DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love
Without You

Twitter: @cashleelee