Review: Usher closes out College Football Playoff's Tampa concerts with gigantic party in Curtis Hixon Park
Thousands of fans packed Curtis Hixon Park. Hundreds more jammed the sidewalks outside. And everyone was dancing just as hard as the man in the red satin jacket whose face was splashed across Tampa's Beer Can Building.
Oh, you thought the Alabama-Clemson game was the hot ticket in town this weekend? Then you weren't there for Usher Sunday night.
The Grammy-winning R&B superstar slammed the door on the College Football Playoff's Playoff Playlist Live concert series with a performance that had fans lining up Sunday morning and shutting down Ashley Drive Sunday night. Forty-degree weather? Not a problem when Mr. Raymond's in the house.
"I know you stand out there in the cold, you travel from state to state to support your team," Usher told the capacity crowd of Tiger and Crimson Tide faithful. "They couldn't do it without you."
And Usher couldn't do it without his partner in crime Lil Jon, a surprise guest who ended up with almost as much stage time as the headliner. Usher gave Lil Jon the mic for a montage of hits including Outta Your Mind, Get Low and Shots; they later joined forces for duets like Lovers & Friends and Yeah!, which morphed into Turn Down For What.
But it was Usher who dropped arena-ready charisma and choreography from the moment he strutted out to OMG. Anytime he'd drop another hit -- the slinky Confessions, the funky Bad Girl, the pulse-pumping Without You and DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love -- fans were grooving all the way in the back, where his face and moves were still crystal clear thanks to the enormous LED monitors flanking the largest stage ever erected in Curtis Hixon Park.
"I could do this all day, you know that right?" he said before Caught Up. "Y'all got the energy."
Before Usher, chatty, charming singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw prowled the stage in a thick puffy jacket, preaching blue-eyed soul in songs like Chariot, Sweeter, Follow Through and Not Over You. He also proved generous with the spotlight, letting his guitarist and musical director, St. Petersburg's Billy Norris, shout out his hometown before chugging out the chainsaw opening chords of I Don't Want To Be.
Introducing both Usher and DeGraw was former Saturday Night Live comic Jay Pharoah, who unleashed a cavalcade of impressions (including Drake, Jay Z, Desiigner and Shaquille O'Neal), riffed on the chilly weather ("Is this Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida, or St. Petersburg, Russia?") and talked about the end of Barack Obama's presidency.
"When Barack went into office, he looked like Bruno Mars," Pharoah said. "Eight years later, he looks like Morgan Freeman."
And then there was the night's unlikely undercard, poncho-wrapped singer-songwriter Jamie N Commons, who laughed throughout the night about the surreality of his inclusion on the bill. The 28-year-old Brit was in good spirits as he shuffled through a set of indie-blues rumblers (Marathon, Low Life, Jungle), introspective mood tunes (Lead Me Home) and pump-you-up rockers (Not Gonna Break Me, Is Your Love Still Strong). He even debuted an all-new song, the gospel-tinged A Change.
"If you told 15-year-old Jamie he was going to be supporting Usher one day..." he chuckled, later admitting he didn't know much about American football. "It's a very strange day."
Strange, but successful. Two days after drizzly weather led to a paltry opening-night crowd, making Playoff Playlist Live look like a potential bust, Sunday's final night was a big ol' blast. Throughout the weekend, there were highs (the energy for Usher and Rachel Platten, the spectacular stage and fireworks), and there were lows (Friday's disastrous turnout, the unbearable cold on Saturday).
But when all was said and done, it was clear Tampa got something rare and special in Playoff Playlist Live. As Usher put it: "When I look out at this audience, I don't see color. I see love."
Clemson fans, Alabama fans, curious locals with no dog in the fight, all coming together to dance by the water. There is a lot to love about that.
-- Jay Cridlin