Last night, I have been to a place called Stevenage to watch a Michael Jackson tribute artist called Ben. He was one of only two UK tribute artists I found interesting and promising enough to spend money on a ticket, transport, and accommodation (it's too difficult to travel back home with public transport at night).
Now that I have seen three different Michael Jackson tribute artists in person, I would like to write about what they have in common, what made each of them stand out, and then answer the question: Is there really a number one? Did one of the two UK tributes manage to do something Kenny did not do? If you have read my old writings about Kenny, you know that he's very special (at least to me).
I will have a look at their looks, their energy during the performance, the song selection, the costumes, the singing (or lack of it), the moves, the band & the dancers, the overall feel of the concert, and the meet & greet after the shows. In the end, I will give my own absolutely personal opinion about who the number one is or isn't (if you don't agree, please don't add hateful comments at the end - everyone's welcome to their own opinion, so let me have mine).
The first thing you notice when you see a Michael Jackson tribute artist is their looks. While we are always told not to judge people by the way they look, it's just part of an MJ tribute to look the part - and they know it.
While I could easily see the difference between Kenny, Navi, and Ben, they all did an excellent job. You can see the difference - but all three of them achieve the same effect: they are very nice to look at, they are convincing. Kenny is the one who uses the most make-up and turns himself into a completely different person. He's the one you would not recognize without the make-up. Navi is the one who got some plastic surgery done to look more like Michael, so needs less sculpting with make-up and other things, I guess. Ben seems to just not need much. I don't really know, but he seems the one with the least make-up.
I guess all three of them wear wigs, so not much to say about that. Ben has very long hair on stage, it looks very nice (as in too good to be true). Navi has the cute habit of playing a lot with his locks and Kenny just wears it like it's natural.
The energy during the performance
The energy they have on stage is the one thing were there are differences - even when it comes to different shows of the same tribute, there are differences. I can't say that about Ben yet. I have only seen him once. But during that one performance, he gave his all. Compared to Kenny and Navi, he is a lot younger though, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he has no (visible) issues. He danced a lot. He moved a lot. No signs of weakness there. It's kind of like the best parts of Kenny and Navi combined into one person.
Kenny has a lot of energy throughout the whole experience and in all five shows I've seen (within one and a half weeks!), he always had that incredible energy. Not once did you ever get the feeling that he feels the performance is a burden on him. He just wings it and makes it look effortless. Yes, there's a lot of sweat (would be a bad sign if there wasn't) but Kenny managed to make flying drops of sweat look like works of art. That might sound weird, but he's just that good. Kenny is also incredibly professional and tough. I know he hurt his wrist during the first performance I saw - but you wouldn't have noticed it in the following shows, he showed himself no mercy.
I've seen Navi twice. The first performance seemed a bit lacking in energy. I don't know what happened there. I loved his performance, no doubt, but it was like a shadow was hanging over the man. I just wanted him to have a break, relax, and cry it out, whatever it was. I guess others didn't notice anything, but during my first Navi experience, I felt a little worried. The second show was different. I almost felt like it was a different person on stage. He seemed to move more, have more energy, and also.... well, I wouldn't call him happy, but he seemed less "dark". I don't know what it is, but Navi doesn't smile much when he's on stage. He seems like a very serious, angry and/or sad version of Michael Jackson.
The song selection
I guess other people will have other opinions but to me Kenny is the winner here, followed by Ben, and then by Navi. Kenny seems to sing the most songs, followed by Ben, followed by Navi. Navi's selection just misses many of my favourites. And by many I don't just mean one or two. I just have one question: Why does nobody do "Blood on the Dancefloor"? Why? And nobody ever does my favourite song - but that's okay. I doubt any of them could do it without me cringing for some reason.
Kenny stood out with his performance of "The way you make me feel" (Ben did stand out with that one, too, to be fair). And while I did not see Kenny's version of "Human Nature" live, I saw it on videos. Hard to beat. Almost impossible to beat. Ben is just as good. Navi doesn't do it, so I can't compare there.
Ben and Kenny both did "I'll be there". Navi didn't. Come on Navi. Not even "I'll be there"?
Kenny sang "Ben". He was the only one to sing that song. He was also the only one to sing "Gone too soon", "Smile", "I just can't stop loving you", and "She's out of my life".
I don't remember who sang what in which sequence - and you wouldn't want to have a song by song playlist anyway. It's just my own personal opinion that Kenny's shows included more songs.
Kenny wins this one. No doubt. From golden leotard with black trousers underneath to gold pants, full Smooth Criminal outfit, Dangerous suit, ripping his shirt at the end of "Black or White", the jackets, the trousers, the socks, the shirt, the hat, the glove. Right costumes at the right moment. I think he's the one who changes his costumes most often. He said he wants to get as close to the real experience as possible. And damn, if he doesn't do that well with the costumes, nobody does.
Ben also has great costumes - and wears them very well. The shirts, e.g. the one for "Man in the Mirror" I liked particularly well. And he sparkles during Billie Jean. As in: he has glitter or some magical dust flying all around him. It's beautiful.
Navi has great outfits, too, no doubt - but he mainly changes jackets during the show.
The singing (or lack of it)
This is the controversial point - as in: I need more facts.
Ben definitely sings live. I have no doubt about that. And he sings very well. It's amazing. He has no issues with any of the songs - and that while dancing. The singing is definitely the one point Ben has no competition but from Michael himself. It's the part about Ben that really makes you feel speechless.
Navi does not really sing live. Does he? He definitely doesn't have any background singers. Apparently, he mimes to Michael Jackson and sometimes sings over him. This is especially obvious in his old videos. I wouldn't mind - but I would like to have some more transparency on this. I prefer the truth more than anything. I loved Navi's performance (why else would I go and see him again?) - but I also love knowing what I am looking at. He's so damn convincing - I just don't know what to think and I hate being confused about something. During the first performance, he threw me off the idea of him singing live by signalling towards someone to the side of the stage when difficult sections of a certain song came up. The following performance, he didn't do that at all and even went into the audience during just that one particular section. Which was very weird. I mean, I admit I had a really good look at his lip and throat movements. I still have my doubts. What the hell is that man doing? But it really just sounds like Michael himself, so it probably is Michael.
Now to Kenny. Someone told me, he was not singing live but that his keyboard player was doing the vocals. Up to that moment, after five performances, I actually never had any doubts about Kenny's singing. Not one single doubt. After all, I had been on stage with him during "She's out of my life". He was singing then. And if you have a look at how he uses the microphone when he's not using the hand-free one (whatever the professional name for it is), you see that his movements correspond with what you hear.
But then I had a look at some videos. I just didn't like having doubts about Kenny. It kind of was a matter of destroying my belief into one of the few good things that happened to me in my life. Kenny Wizz, a liar? Please no. Yes, the keyboard singer does sing - but isn't he just doing harmonies / background vocals like some of the other band members? And when the guy sings a solo part in "I'll be there" he sounds very different from what Kenny sounds like. Ben's band also sings. And often, when Kenny is singing, the head of the keyboard player isn't in front of his microphone, so surely it is Kenny singing? And if Kenny wasn't singing himself, why would he not choose a perfect singer as his "live" voice? Because Kenny is far from perfect, depending on the song. He has issues with some songs. But his singing is absolutely adorable. I also found a video of a TV interview in which he sings a little during the interview. Surely that wouldn't be staged?
Anyway, in the end, Ben is the winner here. First of all because there are no doubts, and second of all: he's just that good.
The band & the dancers
Navi's dancers and band sometimes looked a bit bored, along the lines of "let's get this job done, get the money, and go home". It was a bit of a let down during both shows, but then you have Navi to look at. But you really could get some more motivated dancers. During the two shows that I saw, Navi had Jennifer Batten with him, so that made up for the others.
Kenny had an outstanding team. The band was lovely. The dancers full of energy during every single show. I got to meet some of them, and after my last show, they handed me a used drum skin that was signed by the dancers and the band. It was really a sweet gesture and absolutely unexpected. When I asked whether the drummer could come out after a show, I was so surprised that more of them came out. They were ignored by most of the audience, but I loved meeting them as they had been part of one wonderful, unforgettable experience.
Ben's team was just as outstanding. Sure, they did not have a New Zealand guitarist (beat that), but they were excellent and very professional. I don't know much about bands, but even I could see that that band meant business. And they had fun. Ben only had two dancers but those women were just absolutely amazing to look at and full of energy. They clearly love what they are doing and it makes all the difference.
The overall feel of the concert or: why do I want to see them again?
Each of the three made me want to see him again after just one show - so they all must have done something right. But what was it about each tribute artist that made me buy more tickets for additional shows? Good question.
Kenny: He's Kenny Wizz. I can't explain it. If he ever came to the UK, I'd go to every single show. Fortunately, my work as a freelancer would allow me to do this. I would need to My bank account wouldn't thank me though. I would love to see him again. It's hard to explain. He's just special. He was responsible for a huge change in my life, and for that alone, I'll be forever grateful.
Ben: His singing, his dancing, his mannerisms. He's perfect. But I've only seen him once. So who knows, my opinion might chance. I know nothing about him, but for some reason I think that his connection to Michael Jackson is a bit more similar to my own than that of the other two. He's putting his soul into the show. This is also hard to explain.
Navi: Just like with the other two, I hardly know anything about Navi, but he might be the one who's a bit like Michael in real life, too. Or he seems to be someone who would like to be like Michael. I don't know, but it's kind of something that is radiating from him. Some sort of innate goodness that is hard to explain.
Great. It seems hard to explain in all three cases for three different reasons. But that's okay. The shows of Ben, Navi, and Kenny had one thing in common though - and that is easy to explain and might be the main reason why I want to see each of them again: They all made me feel like I'm not a hopeless case. Each of them made me feel like I can make my dreams come true. Of course none of them would ever care about my dreams - but they reach people like me and show that nothing is impossible. And even if it's a lie, it's nice to live that lie for a couple of hours.
The meet & greet after the show
All three of them usually have meet & greets after the show. Navi's was a little bit different because due to the presence of Jennifer Batten, you needed to buy VIP tickets to have access to the meet & greet after the show (which is not the case when Navi's on his own). This meant that there were less people and you had some more time than during the normal after-show meetings. So it might be a little unfair to give Navi the advantage here. He took me by surprise with the fact that he's actually capable of smiling. I had my doubts after the first time I saw him on stage. He was incredibly nice and very kind. I know, it is all part of his job, but I was really in need of someone being that nice. Jennifer was also lovely. And during the second time, they remembered that they had met me before. I am usually not the kind of person initiate hugs. I am very cautious around people, I don't trust easily after the experiences I made with people - but for some reason all of that went out of the window during the first meeting with Navi. Handshake? Sure thing, but then right in for a hug. I can't understand it myself. I don't usually do such things.
The second time, I was more myself again. But well, Navi remembered and this time he gave me the hug. And then Jennifer, too. I couldn't sleep all night. Jennifer terrified me with her costumes when I was a kid. But she's such a sweet woman. I also got into an argument with Navi about certain countries and which one is better. Both meeting were excellent. Navi seems to be wonderful, and has a very lovely energy around him. Very different from angry Michael on stage! To me, he seems like the kind of person I could talk to - and he'd understand and not misunderstand like the majority of people.
Kenny was also always very lovely during the meetings. Of course, he always remembered me. He just smelled incredible. Even sitting in the first row of the concert, you could smell him. It was the best smell ever. I wonder what he's using?
Anyway, it's clear he's a very good actor. He's got the Michael Jackson act down 100%. It's his job, and he's doing it very, very well. I don't want to write too much more about Kenny. It was just an experience that won't be repeated unless he comes to the UK.
When I met Ben, I was surprised that he wasn't that much taller than me. He had such an immense presence on stage, you just expect him to tower over you. There wasn't as much interaction as with the other two because there were a lot of people in the line. Poor guy must be really tired after such an evening, too.
Nevertheless, Ben was very nice, had a smile for everyone, and patiently signed people's things and had photos taken (or both). I didn't have anything signed. We know what happened after Kenny signed something for me (and if you don't: the saying he wrote down for me ended up as a tattoo on my neck. I just like it so much that I wanted it as a tattoo). He knows that I'll come to see him again because the woman who took the photo talked to me before and I mentioned I'll be moving to Scotland and then see him there, too. He seemed to be happy when people want to come and see him again. It was a short meeting, but very pleasant. He's very sweet - and seems very young still. He must be younger than me. But that's good. It means he won't retire any time soon. Just like Kenny, Ben manages to smile well on stage. And it's not an act, his smiles seem genuine and they do light up the room.
So, is there a #1 Michael Jackson tribute artist?
Most marketing teams like to call the MJ tribute they represent the NUMBER ONE. The only one to do this, the only one to do that. The one chosen by Michael. The only one to meet Michael. All rubbish. You know how marketing works. It's an intricate web of lies and truths that are made to look better than they really are. Navi isn't the only one who worked for Michael. Quite a few tribute artists got to meet him. And even though Kenny never got to see Michael or work for him, Kenny is excellent. And if Michael had ever seen him, he would have agreed. It just never happened - does that make Kenny worth any less than Navi? Absolutely not. At least not in my eyes.
Each of the three has strengths and weaknesses (I'm sure Ben has a weakness, too, somewhere. Nobody's perfect, even Michael himself wasn't). I like all three of them very much, and while there is no other in the UK that caught my eye, I am sure that there are some other excellent MJ tribute artists out in the world. They are all doing an important job for people like me, and for others who just want to be entertained.
And while all three of them are just playing the part, it gives me hope that somewhere out there, there is someone who really has a character like Michael and that I would meet this person one day.