LIVE / Stepping up a weight: Jasper Rees reviews soul singer Luther Vandross in the round at the Wembley Arena

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The Independent Online
It would be an eye-opener to sit in on the creative meeting convened before a Luther Vandross tour - just to confirm exactly what's on the agenda: a debate about diet regimes, perhaps, or a gleeful study of the balance sheets? Whatever, it's clear that the unimportant stuff is quickly dealt with - like what Luther and company will be wearing and singing, which jokes he'll crack, when and how he'll improvise. That portion of the meeting lasts as long as it takes to photocopy the concert arrangements from last time round.

There's never been a Vandross song called 'Let's Do It Like We Did Before', but sometimes it feels that way. In one of those meetings several years ago, someone decided that, for ever after, a Vandross show needed to offer something as dazzling to the eye as his voice was to the ear.

This accounts for the jackets. Once upon a time the suit Vandross came on in was a perfectly innocent roll of black cotton, but then it got into a fight with the Christmas decorations factory, and lost. Tentacles of silver spangle snaked their way over his shoulders. A similar fate befell the wardrobes of his backing singers. Lisa Fischer and Ava Cherry were clad in ball gowns of a circumference and volume generally associated with entertainments laid on by Billy Smart. And that was before the half-time costume change, after which you couldn't see any cloth at all.

At the risk of incurring a writ for libel, the wardrobe looks uncannily like the one they brought over last time, and that goes for the stage, the rinky-dink dance routines and the sexist undertow of Vandross's chat. Like the loud suits, so the soft songs: the only thing that ever changes with Vandross is his reading on the scales. He's back in the superheavyweight division, after another failed flirtation at light middleweight.

This is good news for his tailor but bad news for his repertoire. By some strange process of symbiosis, when the singer puts on the pounds, so do his songs. At one point he must have seen the word 'ballad' written down and misread it as 'ballast', because his slow numbers are so freighted with a dangerous mixture of self-pity and self-admiration they could sink a ship.

People have written quite good novels in the time it takes this man to sing a song. As befits someone who has been told for 20 years that he has the voicebox of the century, in songs like 'Here and Now' and 'Superstar', Vandross dwelt on every individual note as if each one alone was worth the price of admission. He silkily caressed his phrases, he dotingly plumped them, he wallowed in them for comfort. In fact, he did everything he could to make you believe that he wasn't singing about exactly the same thing in the last song.

This kind of behaviour is excusable when only your own compositions suffer. He embarked on his new version of the Bee Gees' much maligned 'How Deep Is Your Love?', and it was never more maligned than here; not content with dragging along well under the speed limit, he couldn't stop himself from rewriting the melody of the song's ecstatic punchline. As for Burt Bacharach and Hal David's 'A House Is Not a Home', it would be interesting to hear what this sounds like when not performed at 16rpm.

To hear something you could call a good old-fashioned tune you had to wait for the tempo to enter the land of the living. 'Never Too Much' and 'Searchin' ' reached back to the early 1980s, when Vandross still had to convince the world that his voice was meant for more than session vocals and advertising jingles. 'Stop to Love' provoked similar nostalgia for the days when your basic Vandross melody didn't routinely disappear up a creek.

The lack of relics from the signature period in the mid-1980s was conspicuous. In 'The Night I Fell in Love' and 'Give Me the Reason' Vandross served up shallow excess that struck the right note during a time of boom and self-love. Since then, Vandross's needle has been stuck. Someone who feels the need for backing singers to back up his backing singers clearly hasn't heard about the recession.

The show was given in the round, the way only the major league soul gods do at Wembley Arena. Overhead screens beamed every last bead of sweat into the four corners of the hangar, the stage rotated, podiums popped up, floors flashed but at the heart of it all was a dispiriting emptiness. Before the end, Vandross took his usual 20 minutes introducing his entourage, but this gesture spoke of obesity rather than generosity. 'The Best Things in Life Are Free,' they all sang as they showered counterfeit dollar bills and left. It was too much to hope that this advice should be printed on the pounds 22 tickets.

(Photograph omitted)