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The Music Scene

Posted: 1:31 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013

Concert review: Miley Cyrus, Pitbull command Jingle Ball crowd 

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Robin Thicke photo
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Robin Thicke
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Miley Cyrus.

By Melissa Ruggieri

As the national Jingle Ball tour chugs along – next stop, Madison Square Garden on Friday – it sprinkles snowflakes of endearingly mindless pop that builds into a blizzard of awesome by the time Miley Cyrus hits the stage.

The Clear Channel/IHeartRadio-produced concerts (locally tied to Power 96.1) spotlight teen pop royalty (Ariana Grande, Austin Mahone) and powerhouse radio names (Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Flo rida), all designed for maximum squeal appeal.

While the Atlanta date received a solid, if not New York-L.A.-level of talent – Cyrus, Thicke, Flo Rida, Pitbull, Travie McCoy, Fifth Harmony, Armin Van Buuren and Bonnie McKee – the brisk, 3 1/2-hour show at Philips Arena on Wednesday night was a study in efficiency.

You might have expected a zippy 15-minute set from Fifth Harmony, the “X Factor” creation with a pleasantly bouncy demonstration of girl power. But an only-minutes-longer show from Thicke, possessor of one of the biggest hits of the year (and sorry, Rob Sheffield, I love your work, but calling “Blurred Lines” the worst song of “this or any other year”? C’mon, man!), was a bit jarring.

But with so many acts to squeeze in, brevity was key. And really, does anyone need more than 20 minutes of McCoy or Van Buuren?

Photos: Jingle Ball tour stops at Philips Arena

At age 36, Thicke, an R&B/soul mainstay who received plenty of support and airplay from audiences other than Top 40-minded 15-year-olds for years prior to “Blurred Lines,” seemed a bit Ward Clever compared to his peers on the bill, even though Pitbull, McCoy, Van Buuren and Flo Rida aren’t much younger.

But even when hopping atop a piano in his snazzy black suit and shades, Thicke couldn’t help but appear more mature (maybe it’s the hair?). After rolling through “Can U Believe,” he preached to the kids in the crowd about never giving up on dreams, using his own delayed mainstream success as an example.

Thicke’s upper register was in pristine form for “Blurred” (which, sadly, did not include a T.I. appearance. Maybe he was too busy getting animated?), though it was a bit disconcerting to hear a ¾-full arena of teens shouting, “You the hottest b**** in this place.”

After Thicke’s surprisingly early appearance in the show, McKee, now Grammy-nominated for co-writing Katy Perry’s “Roar” (she and Perry have a history of hits together) did her best Kesha-meets-Cyndi-Lauper impression.

Hey, at least one of them is talented.

With her bright orange hair and ripped stockings, McKee played the part of flirty sex kitten on “Sleepwalker” and “American Girl,” from her upcoming new album. She’s got the look and the vocal chops, but it’s crowded out there in Pop Land and not everyone is Bruno Mars.

McKee is a talented songwriter (if hooky choruses and mildly clichéd lyrics are your thing…not that there is anything wrong with that). She might be better off following that arrow.

For the third time in 12 months, Flo Rida landed on an Atlanta stage, and, while his songs seem to tire just a little bit each visit, he’s still an indefatigable ringleader.

Most of “Good Feeling” consisted of him telling the crowd to, “Put your hands up, put your, put your, hands up” and his new song, “How I Feel,” sounds exactly like the old songs with the same syncopated beat and wordplay. Of course, it will be a smash.

Unfortunately for Flo, the sound distorted badly during “Cry” (though it’s not a travesty when Brenda Russell’s elegant sample is the only thing that could be discerned), but this is a muscle-bound man who doesn’t stop for anything.

He took a ride into the crowd on his bodyguard’s shoulders during “Wild Ones” and invited a cadre of fans – mostly women – onstage to get “Low,” suitably amping up the party vibe.

Dutch producer/DJ Van Buuren might as well sign his contract to participate in TomorrowWorld 2014 now. Though there are swatches of classical music tossed into his synth-laden beats, they really don't eliminate the monotony.

As the affable-seeming Van Buuren twiddled knobs and clapped his hands overhead, singer Lauren Evans brought a lovely croon to “Alone” and Trevor Guthrie appeared on video to sing “This is What it Feels Like.”

Then came Mahone, the cute teen plucked from YouTube who oozes Bieber in his moves and songs (he also appeared at last year’s Jingle Ball).

“Say You’re Just a Friend” would have been tolerable if not for the incessant shouting of Mahone’s DJ, but nothing could overpower the screeching that greeted his new song, “Banga! Banga!”

While the girls love his swag, Mahone might mature into a formidable pop star in the right hands. His sweetly strummed acoustic version of “Beautiful Soul” proved that underneath the cockiness and rehearsed dance moves lurks a young man with promise.

McCoy opened with his giant 2010 solo hit, “Billionaire,” which his band cranked out in rock-reggae form and offered fans a few tastes of Gym Class Heroes with “Ass Back Home” and “Stereo Hearts.”

He also performed the new “Rough Water,” a harder-edged hip-hop tune with a soaring chorus (sung by Jason Mraz on record) that might nudge him back onto the charts.

By the time Mr. Worldwide (aka Mr. 305, aka Pitbull) arrived, the crowd was sufficiently adrenalized (and no doubt thankful for the relatively short sets).

Pitbull isn’t the best-looking guy or the most proficient singer-rapper, but he’s got style and the ability to command a room with effortless cool.

Songs such as “Hey Baby (Drop it to the Floor)” and “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” certainly aren’t high art. But with his sharp suits, hips that don’t lie and cadre of J. Lo-lookalikes surrounding his every move, Pitbull knows how to jumpstart a party (indeed, “Don’t Stop the Party,” amusingly intro-ed with clips of the Beastie Boys, was a show-stopper).

What you realized while watching him gleefully gyrate during “Feel This Moment” was that Pitbull sells a lifestyle, and plenty of people are buying it.

But the professional slickness of this lineup crumbled in the presence of Cyrus, who pranced out in a fur coat covering a high-cut red leotard, gyrated with a degenerate Santa and engaged in some naughty games with her female backup singers who donned reindeer antlers.

She also sounded great.

From the first notes of “Party in the U.S.A.,” it was apparent that you had to acquiesce to the loony bin that is Cyrus’ world because, no matter how maddening and trashy she can be, the girl is talented.

There was an undeniably beautiful tone to her voice during “We Can’t Stop” – though of course she paused mid-song to chug something from a bottle in Santa’s brown bag – and the saucy “#GetItRight is a bright piece of funk.

The wily Cyrus – who was also shrewd enough to remind the crowd that she’ll be back at Philips in March – also deserves kudos for actually caring about the Christmas backdrop of these shows.

Along with the Santa and reindeer-decorated backup singers, Cyrus’ band all wore goofy Christmas sweaters (think kittens and teddy bears) and a woman dressed as a giant Christmas tree alternately bopped around the stage and flashed her rear for Cyrus to smack (yep, cue the trashy).

But again, you had to compartmentalize, because when Cyrus opened her mouth for a gorgeous cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness,” backed by acoustic guitars and upright bass, and stormed through her monster ballad, “Wrecking Ball,” it was close to magical.

(Check out our photo gallery of the show.)

Melissa Ruggieri

About Melissa Ruggieri

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for Atlanta Music Scene blog on ajc.

Connect with Melissa Ruggieri on:TwitterFacebook

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