Common Delivers Uncommon Hip-Hop Performance

March 21 2003... HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - Two-thirds of the way into his appearance at the House of Blues, Common stopped the show to preach a little.

"Hip-hop," he told the sold-out, enthusiastic house, "started in the streets of New York and went on to change the world, bringing together black, white, Latino, Hindu -- through music." He spent the other 90 minutes of his star-making performance proving his point.

"Electric Circus" (MCA), his recent genre-busting album, nods toward the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" (in the cover collage), Jimi Hendrix (news) and '80s New Wave; its vast reach was reflected in this joyous, musically omnivorous performance, which owed as much to rock stagecraft as to hip-hop.

Preceded by the cabaret strains of "Is That All There Is" and hitting the stage to the question, "Is that all there is to the circus?" Common took the stage like a ringmaster who needs more than just three rings to showcase all his talents.

Dressed in plaid pants, maroon running-suit jacket, a long, woolly multistriped scarf and a soft fedora, he looked like a slightly disreputable sidekick from '70s sitcoms such as "What's Happening!!" and "Good Times," with a sly, Rat Pack cool added in.

And he's more than equal to the costume. Whether he's leaping around the stage, bringing it down to croon a lubricious seduction or break-dancing, it's impossible to take your eyes off him.

Common was backed by a taut six-piece band, including DJ Dummy at the turntables. The evening glided easily from the lopsided calliope of opening number "Soul Power" to the lurching groove of "Electric Wire Hustler Flower" and the covers of hip-hop classics by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and freestyling rap that closed the nearly two-hour performance.

In trying to expand hip-hop's borders, Common has set himself an ambitious path to follow, but as his performance proves, he's more than up to the task.

Opener Talib Kweli has similar ambitions, but his short set just fell short. The Brooklyn-born rapper was somewhat unsettled by the L.A. crowd's cool response and never really found his footing.

He has the skills, including a slashing, precise flow that is both rousing and serious, like a house party with an agenda. Backed only by a DJ and two singers, the songs floated on a bed of afrobeat pop and R&B.

Common and Talib Kweli perform April 3 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York.

Presented by House of Blues Concerts. Bands: (Common) Kevin Arthur, Junius Bervine, Karriem Riggins, Omar Edwards, Clay Sears, Andre "DJ Dummy" Smith; (Talib Kweli), Greg "DJ Chaps" Dendy, Tiffany Phinazee, Tracy Moore. Also appearing: Gang Starr. Opened, reviewed March 18, 2003; closed March 19.

By Steven Mirkin