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Charlie Wilson dazzles crowd with a funky, soulful show

Most music fans understand and respect the laser-accented showmanship of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees – and Friday night’s KeyBank Center headliner – the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

But for anyone who thought R&B icon Charlie Wilson would follow the aforementioned act at KBC on Saturday and politely perform in their Buffalo wake doesn’t know the tricks up the sleeve of a genre standard known simply as “Uncle Charlie.”

Commanding the crowd with a career’s worth of soul power, sultry funk hits and enough multicolored illumination to make Chili Pepper Flea smile, the former Gap Band architect joined openers Johnny Gill and Fantasia to inject the chilly Queen City with some needed weekend warmth.

Though introduced with the subdued “In It to Win It” – the title track off his soon-to-be-released album – the song didn’t serve as a preview of Wilson’s performance intentions. Once the tune concluded, its singer stepped offstage for a beat and emerged with an ebullient train of dancers and musicians, all rolling in formation to burst into Wilson’s Gap Band favorite, “Party Train.”

Charlie Wilson bridges the R&B gap

This was the pace that carried the evening, one that jubilantly chugged along through new tracks like party anthem “Good Times” and the snapping “Chills”; the Snoop Dogg and Pharrell-sampled “Beautiful”; and Gap Band hit “Oops Upside Your Head.”

Soulfully accented with spiritual bounce, the longtime R&B crusader administered his amplified version of Sunday service a day early, drawing dancing fans into aisles.

Expressive Charlie Wilson entertains the KeyBank Center crowd. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

[PHOTOS: Charlie Wilson at KeyBank Center]

Before Wilson took the stage, the night’s action began with former New Edition romantic Johnny Gill, who set the table with a writhing and sweat-drenched 40-minute set. Dancing through tracks in a Buffalo-blue suit and bedazzled dress shoes, the commanding Gill and his four-piece ensemble stirred the ladies in the house with such heartfelt embraces as “This One’s for Me and You” and “Game Changer.”

And as a performance precursor to Valentine’s Day, he presented some of the night’s lucky attendees with long-stem red roses before storming through a soul-baring version of “My, My, My.”

Former “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino followed, matching Gill’s shoes with her own shimmering ensemble while opening with the empowering “Free Yourself.” Joined by her backing band and vocalists, the singer evoked the spirit of an Ike-backed Tina Turner – and not just because she covered Turner’s take on “Proud Mary.”

Fantasia Barrino, an "American Idol" winner, performs as an opener for Wilson. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Dancing and domineering throughout her stunning set, she was amply reminiscent of her R&B predecessor, all while infusing some hip-hop stomp aside her shuffling dance revue. This was evident on the usually Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott-collaboration “Without Me,” with Fantasia storming through the thumping cut.

“In 2017, I’m not taking no nonsense from nobody,” said Fantasia, now touring off last year’s “The Definition of.”

Such intentions might sound cliché from a lesser talent. But when served up with the vocal dexterity of Fantasia – who hit every emotional note while still delivering invigorating tributes to the dance crazes created by Experience Unlimited and Morris Day and The Time – you believe it.


Charlie Wilson with Fantasia, Johnny Gill and Solero

Saturday night at KeyBank Center

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