Usher ‘Unstaged’ at Hammersmith Apollo, London | Live Review

Last night (June 12) a modern-day musical icon, with over a decade of selling out arenas under his belt, graced the stage of a 5,000 capacity theatre in West London’s Hammersmith for an “intimate” show that was, almost inevitably, being beamed out to millions around the world online. On the day that his latest album Looking 4 Myself (check out our review here) dropped in the UK, Usher returned to the Hammersmith Apollo for a one-off gig that he repeatedly described as “history in the making.”

Whilst he’s never been one for feigned humility, the singer was probably referring to the the night’s unique, “highly interactive” nature (which saw tweets from viewers at home appearing on screens behind him and Usher himself even replying to tweets live on stage) rather than to his mere presence at the venue. The show’s live stream was even directed by Hamish Hamilton, the acclaimed British director with a CV nearly as impressive as Usher’s, who helmed Madonna‘s Super Bowl XLVI halftime show and the 82nd Academy Awards.

Usher hit the stage just after 9pm, sporting a snazzy red leather jacket and emerging from underneath the smoke-filled stage to the tune of multi-platinum single “OMG.” Ever the entertainer, he wasted no time catching his breath, immediately shimmying his way across the top of the relatively elaborate stage, before swaggering down some stairs to join his backing dancers. It was an impressive and energetic entrance, and more importantly, established immediately that, physically and as a performer, Usher was still at the very top of his game.

As he danced his way through highlights from his vast catalogue in the first half of the show, promising a “journey” and performing early classics like “You Make Me Wanna” (his first UK number one and accompanied by a great ’90s R&B dance routine which featured some impressive hat swapping and even a chair-jump) and “Nice and Slow” (which, in a throwaway *facepalm* moment, he inexplicably interrupted to tell a story about the car he was driving at the time of the record’s release), it became evident that this spectacle was not going to be about Usher’s voice.

Throughout the entire night, the singer himself performed perhaps a third of his own songs, focused instead on the choreography – the frequent gaps were filled by an adoring and vocal crowd. The experience was akin to spectacular ‘Usher karaoke,’ set to a backdrop of pyrotechnics and elaborate dance routines, with a frequently absent superstar leader. This was nothing new – it’s been the core of Usher’s live shows since he first started – but given that his voice sounds better than ever on new album Looking 4 Myself, I’d been hoping to hear more of it live.

When Usher did sing though, his voice was on fine form. During the concert’s outstanding middle section, which mostly featured Confessions-era tracks like “Burn,” “My Boo,” “Caught Up” and even “Lovers and Friends,” as well as a couple of curveballs like “Daddy’s Home” and “I Need A Girl,” he worked the crowd to perfection, deigning to join them on most of the songs.

This golden-era hot streak eventually fizzled out with the introduction of the first new song of the night, the Swedish House Mafia produced “Euphoria,” literally marking the beginning of the end, with the show entering its final phase. At this point, Usher ran through his recent dance-influenced numbers, including “DJ Got Us Falling In Love” and “Without You,” before eventually reaching his comeback single, “Climax.”

This track, arguably the most significant of his career, received an unexpected treatment with three seperate versions performed – first the stunning original, then a beautiful stripped down acoustic version, and finally a bizarre rave-out trance remix. Just as curious as the decision to transform “Climax” into a trance record was the decision to perform only four tracks from his just-released new album, which last night’s affair was presumably in support of.

Perhaps the show’s greatest success was Usher’s attempt to bring his arena-built live show to a venue a fifth of that size. Those big arena sensibilities were never more evident than during the final 20 minutes, when lasers and light shows lit up the Apollo in time with the music. Usher and his team deserve credit for delivering his well-oiled, all-singing, all-dancing show on that stage, but in doing so, they passed up the chance to do something different.

I suspect that last night will garner deservedly great reviews across the board; allow me to be the dissenting voice. Last night was not a triumphant return heralding the start of a great reinvention. It was a polished and professional showman delivering the same world-class show that he’s put on hundreds of times in an 18-year career. On the one hand, he gave the crowd what they wanted, running through smash hits and bonafide classics with casual and ruthless efficiency. On the other, almost every move was entirely predictable.

With the world watching, Usher declined an opportunity to truly showcase the phenomenal, perhaps even career-defining, new album that he’d just released, instead offering a ‘greatest hits’ set that ultimately digressed into an assault of mostly abhorrent Europop dance songs. There was no lack of effort, just a lack of invention – and whilst many fans will have left satisfied, this show could have been so much more.

Watch back the full show below:

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