Mary J Blige, MEN Arena, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

This was the night Mary J Blige threw down the gauntlet in the battle of the divas. Later this month, the relative newcomers Missy Elliott and Kelis co-headline a UK tour, but last night belonged to a true original. It was Blige who first fused sweet soul music with hip hop's sterner rhythms on her 1992 debut album What's the 411?.

This was the night Mary J Blige threw down the gauntlet in the battle of the divas. Later this month, the relative newcomers Missy Elliott and Kelis co-headline a UK tour, but last night belonged to a true original. It was Blige who first fused sweet soul music with hip hop's sterner rhythms on her 1992 debut album What's the 411?.

That record opened the door for R&B's rise and signalled the start of Blige's own rollercoaster ride. Once feared for her sulks and threats of violence, she seemed more interested in jewellery than people.

This diva was booed off in the UK after an early Nineties show, but earned sympathy as she publicly came to terms with her rough childhood in Yonkers, New York, a rumoured drug habit and an abusive boyfriend. When Blige returned in 2002, she conquered the arena circuit.

This long-awaited Manchester date, then, opened her three-date tour to support her 2003 album Love & Life, an album so feel-good that it bordered on smugness, with little of the party vibe of its predecessor, No More Drama, the record that marked the appearance of the friendly Mary J.

Before she appeared in the flesh, Blige appeared on video in a boardroom, telling the record company suits to treat her fans better, for it was they who put her where she is today. A reminder, then, that we were about to witness God-fearing, respectful Blige. Indeed, when the screens at the back of the stage parted in a flash of light, Blige appeared in casual jeans and a simple black top.

No-nonsense Blige hared through the early part of the show, blasting out old favourites with barely a pause for breath, while Sean Combs's pop-friendly hooks filled the vast space. In a formidable display, she out-roared the samples from her guest vocalists on record, with no sign of miming.

Blige's band provided firm backing, combining tough beats with elements of a soul revue. Most striking, though, was the lack of glam: they were lined up as if for a Stax roadshow on a stage with barely a prop to be seen. Instead of Britney's overblown themes, Mary J relied on the odd table and chairs or electric candles.

At this point, Blige created that stadium fugitive, intimacy, as she sang her power ballad "Child of the Ghetto". Then she began speechifying, telling us that people were trying to drag her back to the ghetto, but she was still standing. Such testaments introduced the next tranche of songs, turning the gig into the sort of life-success event that plays well in Miami, but not in Manchester.

Finally, a proud "No More Drama" and the sassy "Family Affair" got the audience back on their feet. This was real life-affirming stuff. The album title track was right; the show lacked drama. All that was left was to celebrate a survivor, and in the end we settled for that.

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