Brian McKnight knows about mass-market adulation and the ways and means of pop culture celebrity. Now 41, the romantic soul singer has recorded numerous million-selling albums, played elaborate concerts backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, starred on Broadway in the hit musical "Chicago," hosted radio and TV talk shows and appeared on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice."
About a year ago, McKnight began to yearn for a more intimate connection and specific means of expression with his audience. The result is a series of concerts -- including four shows Tuesday and Wednesday at the Dakota Jazz Club -- that give new resonance to the title of McKnight's biggest hit, "Back at One." They are solo performances designed to go beyond the music itself, back to the inspirations, experience and nuts-and-bolts process that made the songs possible.
"In a regular concert, I've never been able to show people not only what I do, but how I do it and why I do it," McKnight explained, speaking the morning after Christmas from his home in Los Angeles. "I want to tell the story of my songs.
"Probably 90 percent of them are autobiographical, from my childhood and the way I was raised, through the different relationships in my life. It is equal parts funny and serious.
"In ways it is less like a concert than a one-man show."
Accompanying himself on piano or guitar, McKnight will play songs that span the gamut of his career. The tender ballads that boosted him to prominence in the 1990s -- hits such as "Anytime," "One Last Cry" and "On the Down Low," in addition to "Back at One" -- will almost certainly be performed, and dissected.
"Some songs I just have to play," he acknowledged. "But in the spur of the moment I can go off on a tangent, because I've written and sung all of these songs and played the instruments for them."
Stealing a Seinfeld idea
To retain that spontaneity and ensure that each performance is unique, McKnight concludes with a two-part encore segment governed by the audience. The first part was inspired by the comic Jerry Seinfeld.
"I saw him come back out after his routine and tell the audience they could ask him whatever they wanted, like what kind of cereal he likes or whatever," says McKnight, who has adopted the practice. "So far, I've gotten all kinds of questions. There are a lot of musicians and singers who come to my shows who want to know what it takes [to achieve his level of fame], and there are women who ask if I like boxers or briefs, that kind of thing, but it is a time when people can ask me whatever they want. And we keep going until it starts to feel stale."
The second part is a four-song medley as determined by the audience. "There are some songs that I don't sing, and that I have never sung in concert, some of them because they are too personal," he said. "But this is the time when the audience gets to choose. One of the problems is, I have written so many songs that sometimes the audience knows the lyrics better than I do."
McKnight has performed this solo showcase about 25 times, and claims that he has been able to establish that deeper rapport he is seeking on each occasion.
"This is the kind of thing I've always wanted. The music I write and play isn't necessarily who I am all the time -- they are just the moments in time that people get to hear. I want it to be more than that. I tell people at the beginning of the show that they will learn things about me they didn't know -- some things that maybe they didn't want to know. People know I can sing and play, but I want to entertain them on a deeper level. I want them to leave feeling like they got their money's worth, but also feeling like they were able to see a different side of me."