On haphazard night, Cole barely bothers to show

Boston Globe, March 15, 2006

It was 1:30 a.m. when Keyshia Cole took the stage last Wednesday night at the Roxy, and the copious security presence made it clear that her set had zero chance of running past closing time. In any event, Cole, a popular choice for Next Big Thing in R&B on the strength of her album “The Way It Is,” took just 20 minutes to do her thing before thanking God and her fans and disappearing backstage.

Until then it had been a fun enough time, for a club night: Folks came to dance, and the DJ played a potpourri of radio jams. But this was billed as Cole’s concert. Her target audience young black women with romantic ideals and emotional grievances was present en masse, and the frustration was apparent. That so many stayed testifies to Cole’s appeal and to Boston’s chronic scarcity of major black- oriented events.

Cole’s set contained few surprises, other than a propensity, in her stage banter, to speak in the same breath the name of God and the N-word. (She worships the former, and calls men the latter.) Slender and unpretentious in a simple lavender top, she motored through her hits “I Changed My Mind,” “(I Just Want It) To Be Over,” “I Should Have Cheated,” and “Love,” many women in the room singing along in communion.

Inevitably, Cole’s one cover came from the Mary J. Blige songbook, still the gold standard for R&B in the hip-hop era. It was a tough one the heart-rending “I’m Going Down,” from Blige’s classic album “My Life” and Cole, unaided by a so-so sound system, wasn’t quite there.

Earlier, Boston’s Metro City, four young dudes in hip-hop gear crooning slow jams a la Jodeci, helped stave off the ennui, backed by funk band Usual Suspecks. Their stagecraft needs refining (no need to change outfits midway through a 20-minute set) but the members of Metro City possess good voices and an appealing baby- faced sincerity.

At night’s end, the crowd filed out onto a blocked-off Tremont Street past all manner of police cars, an out-of-proportion presence considering the evening’s few isolated scuffles. Like the show’s haphazard programming, it seems that such indignities have become, for the Boston R&B audience, unavoidable facts of life.