Brian McKnight Refuses to Get Porny at the Blue Note, Still Manages to Drive Some Women Insane

I did not want to see Brian McKnight last night.

The idea of covering an event just for the thrill of a juicy story does not appeal to me. Seeing Brian McKnight in concert, after having written two weeks ago about his unusual decision to release an adult-themed song as a way to revive his career, sounds like a great story, but I wanted no part of it. As the afternoon turned to evening and I vacillated between attending (a ticket had already been reserved, under my name, as a form of peer pressure from a friend), I finally found a way out. I’d watch basketball. That way, at least I’d having something to write about and the night wouldn’t be a complete professional waste.

But then horrible news came my way. Brian McKnight, crooner of hits such as “Anytime” and “One Last Cry,” was playing two sets Wednesday night. It was almost as if I were meant to see him deliver the TKO on our relationship by singing, live, about “teaching ladies things about themselves.” After finishing the Celtics-76ers game, more news came my way, this time from those who had just attended the first show:

  1. He didn’t perform “iFUrReadyToLearn,” best described by Billboard‘s Jason Lipshutz as a “filthy jam.”
  2. It wasn’t a long show.
  3. Duke Ellington.

The first update was a relief, the second (coupled with the first) actually made me want to attend, and the third was confusing and, at the time, gibberish. Even though there was still the chance that he would turn the second show into a long, porny experience, I figured I might as well check it out.

I was told the show was at the Blue Note, but it never truly registered that Brian McKnight was playing at the Blue Note jazz club, a decently swanky place, not to mention one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs. It also didn’t register that when told, “Yes, I’ve got an extra seat at my small table for you,” this would be a sit-down affair, complete with calm, upstanding individuals. So when I walked in, hat backward and hoodie zipped up to cover a tank top, and immediately saw a stage filled with a piano, upright bass, a full horn section, and a crowd predominately composed of adults older than Brian, it became clear this was not the shock concert that I thought it would be earlier in the day.

A note to anyone embroiled in any type of image scandal: Bounce back with an event at the Blue Note. All troublesome past decisions will be erased from the official record. I promise. Tiger.

Public-relations digressions aside, after a scan of the crowd, some conversation with our table mates, and a two-second moment of “Wait, did Savion Glover just walk by? Yep, definitely Savion Glover. Is he here for the show, or is he hopping onstage? But there’s no room for Savion on that stage. How will he ever? But this is Savion Glover we’re talking about! He knows no limits when it comes to telling stories of the African diaspora with his feet. With. His. FEET,” the band came onstage. The Duke Ellington Orchestra, to be exact (update 3, “Duke Ellington,” now makes sense). In full tuxedos. Without Brian.

I removed my hat. Because I was raised well.

For the next 20 minutes, many a thought raced through my mind as I watched the band nail such Duke standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Cotton Club Stomp,” “Lush Life,” “Perdido,” and “Caravan.” Thoughts:

  • Why have I been spending my evenings covering hip-hop? This is incredible.
  • Why am I not wearing a cummerbund?
  • I had no idea I could tap both my feet, snap, shoulder-shimmy, whistle, and thizz face at the same time.
  • This is a little too good; not sure if I want Brian to ever come out.

But after these five selections, he did. Brian McKnight. In the flesh. Seemed like a very nice guy. Great skin.

As soon as he hit the stage he joined the band, and instead of starting into his set of songs he accompanied the band in more classics, such as “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Satin Doll,” and “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.” As these songs progressed, the atmosphere mirrored the class of the pre-Brian set, but with every passing minute, every McKnight falsetto, and every longing gaze out into the crowd, things slowly began to change.

The crowd began to emote. Actually, to be more specific, one lady in the front row began to scream at the top of her lungs. It was as if she had been waiting 15 years to see Brian in person, and was forced to hold it in for the earlier portion, but she finally reached the point where she couldn’t contain her emotions any longer. She let out a few screams between songs, but by the time Brian made his way from the mic stand to the piano bench to play his song “Anytime,” she could no longer wait for “appropriate” times to be the only one screaming in an intimate venue of no more than 200.

And then she stopped screaming. She stopped because she had more to get off her chest than just shrill noises. She needed Brian to know things. So she told him. And all of us.

“I don’t care if they kick me out of this club, I just love you so much Brian.”

For the true jazz fans in the place, the lady was beginning to become annoying, but I never wanted it to end. I wanted her to take that Budweiser that she was cradling, walk onto the stage, steal a bass clarinet, pretend it was a microphone, and demand Brian sing “Endless Love” with her. I wanted it more than anything.

But while all of this was happening, Brian kept his cool and kept singing. I think I knew this about him, but he’s definitely in a rare class of male singer (R. Kelly, Luther Vandross as prime examples) that could sing for 10 minutes about the packaging on the outside of a CD case that’s always impossible to open, and it would still sound like the most beautiful song ever. It’s just pristine. And he doesn’t make mistakes. This is why, even though I loathed everything about that nasty song he made, I’d be a liar if I said his voice sounded bad. It didn’t. It can’t.

When Brian launched into his most famous song, “Back at One,” he paused a moment and dedicated it to “Felipe and his date.” For the previous 20 minutes, I wondered what this prom-aged couple was doing in the front row, and why the gentleman was paying homage to Nate Dogg in his red blazer and black bowler hat. All we got was a name, Felipe, but the number of questions I had for him (and wanted to ask him after the show) were endless. The obvious initial three: Who is that girl? Did you tell her you were bringing her to a Trey Songz concert? How high up on the food chain are you, Felipe, that you get Brian McKnight shout-outs?

Even though I suspect Question 2 to be absolutely true, sadly, we’ll never know the answer to the others. Such a shame.

Brian finished up his set, reuniting with the band for one last song, and then took a seat on the side. Figuring that the concert was over, I began to fumble for my wallet to pay the assumed $75 for a whiskey ginger. But right as this happened, a different woman in the back yelled “PLAY ‘IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD’!” And then she yelled it again. And then they played it.

Is that how things work? Have I been missing out on things by just hoping they happen or, even worse, asking politely? There’s no way they play it if she raises her hand. But if you put the fear of God into the bandleader, of what might happen if Brenda (just guessing) doesn’t get her “In a Sentimental Mood” fix, you get what you want. That’s fantastic.

Filed Under: We Went there

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

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