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The hottest concert ticket this year turned out to be for one of the unlikeliest comebacks in a long time -- Vanilla Ice.

The much-maligned former rapper and teen idol came out leaner and much meaner with his new hardcore image Wednesday at the Showplace Theatre. The demand to get into the sold-out concert was so heavy, signs were posted outside the Showplace as crowds milled about on the street.

The audience packed inside the sweltering concert venue was again the young, white teen crowd that supported Ice during the multiplatinum success of his 1990 debut, "To the Extreme."

He has gone to the extreme again, missing the big hair and oversize, glittering MC Hammer-like costumes he was saddled with early in his career. Now he's sporting a hardcore uniform with his short, Caesar-like blond haircut and streamlined athletic shirts and shorts.

And instead of rapping out his trademark "Ice, Ice Baby," the new, harder Ice yells it out with the raw, gut-wrenching screams of the music on his new CD, "Hard to Swallow."

Whether the new Ice image is itself hard to swallow, was the question of the evening. The crowd was filled with the curious who couldn't wait to see what the new Vanilla Ice was about.

"I really liked his old stuff. I heard the new music and I thought it was funny. That's why I'm here," said Kim Merkel, 17, of Buffalo, who attended the concert with six curious friends. "We all bought T-shirts and we're planning on wearing them to school tomorrow."

It was the second Vanilla Ice concert for Todd Feldman, 20, of Buffalo, who had a hard time containing his excitement. "When I saw him a few years back, I thought it was my last chance," he said. "Tonight is a rite of passage -- you get a chance to see a living legend in a tiny club."

The concert was also a big event for Sean Carney, 12, of Tonawanda. It was the first concert ever for Sean, who says he's a fan of Ice from way back -- when he was 9. "I like him better now. He tells you about his life in his songs," Sean said.

But those stories behind the songs on "Hard to Swallow" were almost impossible to hear over harsh music and vocals that even made a few of the songs hard to distinguish from each other. Loud, crashing drums, grinding guitars and thumping bass lines were the soundtrack to the anger spewing from the stage (especially in Ice's song detailing his hatred for rock critics, with a title that's unprintable in a family paper).

His stage behavior reflected his brutal music, as Ice threw instruments and people around the stage in actions a bit too similar to the frenzied moves of Trent Reznor.

Ice's new sound still contained rap elements, but stood on its own as hardcore, which is the key to continued success beyond the novelty of this comeback tour.

The bombastic opening to "S.N.A.F.U." gave way to a fast rap over its heavy thunderings. The surprisingly gentle opening to "A.D.D." was mesmerizing with its steady drum beat and arpeggiating guitar before erupting into a high- jumping, heavy-thumping hardcore.

For his signature song, "Ice, Ice Baby," the singer let the crowd do the work as the audience took over the vocals without any instrumental help. He returned to the "old school" during his encore, with longtime collaborator DJ Zero on the turntable.

Vanilla Ice

Rapper turned hardcore artist.

Wednesday evening at the Showplace Theatre.

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