Mary J Blige, O2 Arena, London
Diva leaves you wanting more
Thursday 05 June 2008
After 15 years of sharing heartfelt tales, testimonies of love and gaining an Oprah Winfrey status on wax, it's little wonder that Mary J Blige has calmed down. Her latest album, Growing Pains, spelt out her desire for her fans to respect the fact she's now a grown woman whose marital bliss is her reigning inspiration, rather than the drug-addled testimony of her former years.
So at the age of 37, she's clearly not keen to play catch-up with the queue of singers who have chosen to build their career on her streetwise sensibilities (Keyshia Cole, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé). And while tonight showcases a few fireworks and glitz, a costume change, and a frenzy of occasional choreography in front of a packed house, the clichés are toned down for a concert that offers 90 minutes of nothing but lovely music.
Opening with "Grown Woman", she's a feisty figure, exuding the hip bravado fans have grown to love and emphasising the lyric "I'm a grown woman, can't you see me?" as she poses before the audience, all blonde bob, sunglasses and figure-hugging threads in white. She doesn't really smile much, but once she's discarded the shades, her eyes reveal a cheeky glint because she's all about having some fun tonight.
The first part of the show is dedicated to her "oldies", and she breezes through teasers of "Reminisce", "All Night Long" and "Real Love" as fans dutifully sing along. Unfortunately for them, they can't match the jaw-dropping melisma that she effortlessly delivers, while she throws her trademark shapes all across the stage.
But Mary J Blige isn't just in the business of taking the crowd on a trip down memory lane, and it's not long before she's sermonising for the benefit of the ladies in the house, while the men reluctantly take a back seat.
"Ladies, we talk the way we talk," she reasons before segueing into a killer rendition of Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing", followed up by "Love No Limit" from her debut album, What's the 411? and a homage to Anita Baker's "Been So Long".
She credits the jazz singer for kicking off her career and even manages to successfully imitate Baker's signature "be-bopping" style.
She turns up the heat again (and invites the men back to the party) when she offers up the flawless "I'm Going Down". Her voice, which has always been regarded for its raw edge and grittiness, is virtually impeccable, and in case she needed to remind the crowd why she's acknowledged as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, those vocals climax into a moment of sheer passion during her performance of "No More Drama".
By the end of it, she can hardly contain herself, bouncing in her three-inch heels and dropping down on one knee. "I'm so sick and tired of people judging me for what I used to be," she frowns, explaining the song means a lot to her.
"They never want to give you credit – what about what I am right now, people?" The audience roars approval in response.
More recent hits such as "One" and "Work That", reflect the fact that Mary's come a long way – but she's mainly in her element when she's given the chance to take her fans on her journey through song, from being a "girl from Yonkers" to a married woman who's had to chance to collaborate with Elton John, George Michael and Bono. And in case you needed something to remind you of how she's doing nowadays, she tells us, she was soon busting moves to the stomping melody of "Just Fine".
It's just unfortunate that by the time we're ready to dance the night away, she cuts the fun short by wrapping up with "Family Affair", which would have been an electric encore if she'd managed to hold it off for another 20 minutes or so.
But where she's left the crowd wanting more, she's also established that she's not called an R&B diva for nothing and, given she's paid her dues over the past decade in the music industry, we weren't about to forget it.
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