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Martinez, B.o.B. and Leslie impressive at Welcome Back Concert

Friday night’s Welcome Back Concert at the Fine Arts Center kicked off the spring semester with a bang (not to mention more than a few unintentional feedback squeals). Hosted by the University Programming Council (UPS) at the University of Massachusetts, and anchored by two of its most enthusiastic members, the concert maintained a uplifting atmosphere from beginning to end.

Slideshow: UPC Welcome Back Concert

The first performer, Vicci Martinez, hit her vocal climaxes early and often. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a voice that betrayed her tiny stature (which was revealed when she was dwarfed by the equipment crew), she performed soulful folk blues for a short but powerful set.

With big, open chord progressions under soaring, top-of-her-lungs vocals, and lyrics like “Believe in all of your dreams, and live out your destiny,” Vicci’s performance was fit for a self-help show. She closed with a haphazard cover of “Billie Jean,” apologizing about halfway through because she “forgot the chords to the song.”

This left the crowd understandably confused, but they were all back on the same page soon enough, thanks to the UPC ladies’ crash course in “Jersey Shore” fist-pumping. Appropriately energized, they welcomed B.o.B. (a.k.a. Bobby Ray) with immediate and near-constant dancing, which is even more impressive considering the concert hall venue, fully furnished with rows of seating.

He opened with “I Feed These Streets,” wherein he shared rapping duties with a recording of himself. The effect was, fortunately, more Run-DMC than Ashley Simpson, summoning a hype man from the speakers to aid the one on stage with him.

From there, the set did some unexpected things. In the middle of another contemporary hip-hop track (in the dime-a-dozen style of T.I. or Young Jeezy), the DJ cut the beat and B.o.B. began a disarming freestyle. Carefully building suspense for the jarring transition to come, he removed his aviators and lyrically confessed his transgressions against (in so many words) keeping it real – wearing a trendy grill to fit in, etc.

In the closing moments of the freestyle, the four members of his backing band took the stage, and Bobby Ray himself (it is safe to say that at this point, he was no longer B.o.B.) turned and grabbed an electric guitar. In a fluid, crow-pleasing transition, the band struck up on some rousing, high-tempo arena rock.

The unexpected musical styles kept coming, as Bobby’s tunes ranged in influence from Gnarls Barkley to Björk to Coldplay. This, along with a goofy and mobile sense of showmanship, helped keep his set fresh and entertaining. He moved among the front row spectators during one song, and during another, brought a girl up on stage to serenade her.

After Bobby Ray (and a seemingly endless parade of interim antics like a “jimmy-shoe” demonstration and audience dance contest), headliner Ryan Leslie trotted out to an epic rock overture. He continued the spectacle with Usher-inspired dance moves, big-beat synth funk and a stage presence that had the audience swooning.

One girl in particular was so enamored with him that she attempted numerous times to pull him from the stage into her open arms. Though unsuccessful in this endeavor, she did succeed in winning Leslie’s heart to a certain extent – convinced by her passes, he changed the order of his set and moved right into his particularly steamy “Valentine.”

And it only got sexier and sexier; he one-upped Bobby Ray and sang a very tender “Happy Birthday” to one of the UPC hosts, who literally shook at the touch of his hand. The rest of his performance merited several collective swoons from half of the crowd, and his undeniably bombastic grooves floored the other half.

Of course, they were only floored as long as Leslie allowed them to be. With a cool confidence, he asked the seated audience if they were “ready to do it for real” right before busting into the bassy, slinking “Addiction,” bringing the suddenly energized and mobile crowd right along with him.

In keeping with Vicci Martinez and Bobby Ray’s inspirational messages of individuality and following one’s dreams and the like, Leslie preceded one of his songs with the declaration: “Students of UMass – if you believe that anything is possible, make some noise.”

Okay, it was all pretty cheesy, but the performers sold it beautifully. Massively palatable and inescapably uplifting, this Friday’s concert was a thoroughly satisfying reminder of how far a professional studio backing band, plenty of stage experience, and well-designed concert hall acoustics can take a show.

Garth Brody can be reached at gbrody@student.umass.edu.

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