Peabo Bryson in Concert

By Allen Howie

From his very first number, "By the Time This Night Is Over," Peabo Bryson's effortlessly smooth style served as a dramatic reminder that he remains the natural -- and only -- heir to the vocal legacy of the late, great Donny Hathaway. Like Hathaway, Bryson has made hits with soul songstress Roberta Flack. Like Hathaway, Bryson never seems to strain for a note. And like Hathaway, Bryson always places melody ahead of the kind of showy, often pointless vocal acrobatics favored by so many R&B youngbloods.

In person, the singer combines the stylish elegance of Nat "King" Cole and the easy charm of Ray Charles with the broad appeal of Johnny Mathis and the supple vocal sensuality of Marvin Gaye. All of these qualities were on display at Commonwealth Convention Center throughout the evening of June 18, whether Bryson was teasing the ladies in the house or delivering the goods on hits like "If Ever I'm In Your Arms Again." Even in a setting as acoustically challenging as the Convention Center's echo-prone auditorium, his voice cut through, a fluid marvel of melody and phrasing.

Another of Bryson's gifts became evident as he ran through a set loaded with familiar songs: his ability to pick material that can't be confined to one musical genre, maintaining a following that cuts across the boundaries of race and age.

Bryson is well-known for his duets with Flack, Celine Dion and Regina Belle, and his female back-up singers took turns standing in for their more famous counterparts, each time doing a masterful job, coaxed along by Bryson's commanding presence. Whether it was the subtle tension of "Tonight I Celebrate My Love" or his monster hits from the Disney camp, "A Whole New World" from Aladdin and the Oscar/Grammy winning "Beauty and the Beast" from the film of the same name, Bryson wrapped his voice around those of his partners, lifting each tune to a sweet soulfulness all its own.

Bryson offered a taste of his new album, Through the Fire, including the title track, a sweeping pop ballad, and the new single, "Why Goodbye," a stirring slowdance that speaks of trust and commitment during troubled times. Bryson gave an electrifying performance of his first Number One single, a remake of "Show and Tell," the song written for Johnny Mathis that became Al Wilson's Number One hit over 20 years ago. All melody and emotion, it's the perfect vehicle for a singer with Bryson's talent - a talent he was quick to credit to the Lord just before quietly reminding the audience, in the wake of O.J. Simpson's arrest, that in America a man is still innocent until proven guilty.

Providing a cool respite from the overwhelming heat, Peabo Bryson showed that in this sample-heavy, program-happy age, there's still a place for the real deal.