Nelly Furtado at Park West

March 9, 2001

By Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic

Ours is a big world that grooves to many different rhythms. Critics and world-beat fans have long dreamed of a pan-cultural pop music that finally recognizes this truth.

Some would say that the so-called Latin explosion of artists like Ricky Martin and Jennifer "J. Lo" Lopez is a step in that direction, but their music is really just disco tarted up with cowbells and timbales. Nelly Furtado, a Canadian-born singer-songwriter of Portuguese descent, is a much, much stronger contender.

Taking the stage Wednesday night before a packed crowd of enthusiastic fans at the Park West, the Victoria, British Columbia, native delivered a solid overview of tunes from her striking DreamWorks debut, "Whoa Nelly."

The album's best moments--songs such as "Turn Off the Light," ". . .On the Radio (Remember the Days)" and "Baby Girl"--are an intoxicating, high-energy mix of salsa and hip-hop, with shimmering R&B backings, gentle bossa nova interludes and seductive ambient electronica a la Portishead.

On stage, these tunes were all the more mesmerizing, thanks to Furtado's bold, brassy voice, ebullient persona and penetrating, soulful gaze.

But another side of the artist also was in evidence. At times, the diminutive but bouncy singer tried too hard to be the consummate nightclub entertainer, and her more subdued ballads suffered from overdone histrionics.

Her band was also a major disappointment. Her keyboardist, guitarist, bassist, percussionist and drummer epitomized the sort of heavy-handed, overplaying session pros who populate the house bands on late-night talk shows. The more subtle ethnic rhythms and swirling electronic backgrounds of "Whoa Nelly" gave way to a sound at the Park West that veered dangerously close to jazz fusion easy-listening.

This tour is establishing Furtado as a real presence in the pop music world. Let's just hope she maintains that adventurous edge when she chooses her future collaborators and producers.

Opening the show: self-styled Chicago soul man Nicholas Barron, formerly of Swimmer. He delivered an insufferable, overlong set of coffee-house hokum, adding goofy vocal beat box to his choogling acoustic guitar and sub-Dave Matthews crooning during cheesy originals and embarrassingly bad covers of Al Green and Leonard Cohen.