Mary J Blige, Wembley Arena, London
Something about Mary
Wednesday 21 June 2006
The crowd are eating out of her hand even before Mary J Blige steps on stage and launches into "Real Love", the song that, in 1992, introduced her as the queen of hip-hop soul, a pillar of ghetto fab and this generation's premier soul singer. It takes only a few backstage vocal riffs to induce the first of many exceptionally loud cheers. After one more trip down memory lane with the new-jack-swing flavours of "Reminisce", she then jumps straight into her latest single, "Enough Cryin'", proving herself as good an MC as she is a singer.
It sets the tone for the evening. Blige concentrates on material from her latest album, but is careful not to forget the classics.
The singer is at the height of her powers. The Breakthrough, her seventh album, is her most successful yet. It has already sold millions and rendered insignificant the ambivalence that greeted its 2003 predecessor, Love and Life. That album, perhaps unfairly, caused some to wonder whether Blige's star power was fading.
Such concerns have now been put to rest, and, in any case, Blige has such a dedicated fanbase that she's guaranteed a degree of success with every record. It doesn't seem likely that anyone present tonight ever let such heinous thoughts cross their minds.
The packed house sing the whole of "I'm Going Down", failing to tire after even the second chorus. Blige is clearly surprised and seems a little overawed. She manages only a barely audible "wow" before moving on with proceedings. For "Share My World", the enthusiastic audience sings the entire bridge, ad libs and all. It's a celebration.
But Blige doesn't sit back and just enjoy the adulation. Her confident strutting across the stage during the uptempo "Can't Hide From Love" evokes memories of Tina Turner during her prime - she actually jumps up and down a few times towards the end of "No More Drama" (which must have been difficult in the thigh-high black boots that complemented her stylish culottes and waistcoat) and a lovely atmosphere is created when the auditorium becomes lit by the mobile phones held in the air for Blige's version of U2's "One" (she thanks the band for letting her cover the song and praises Bono's emotional lyrics.)
When she speaks about how her own songs "literally saved my life", she really means it. Her battles with drink, drugs and a host of unsuitable suitors before 2001's triumphant No More Drama album are well documented, not least by herself. But while she doesn't shy away from the darker side of her past, she doesn't wallow in it either. The success of The Breakthrough has proved that she doesn't have to be constantly pressing the self-destruct button in the way that she described on her second album, My Life. "I just had to let you know," she explains after "Father in You", a song about her absent father. She then, however, follows up with the jubilant "I Found My Everything". Blige hasn't forgotten that it's a sunny Saturday night.
The quality of her live shows has always closely matched the degree to which she was dealing with the strife behind the music. The infamous Hammersmith Apollo show during the My Life era, when she nonchalantly performed three or four songs before being booed off, will for ever be remembered as one of her less friendly episodes.
To judge by tonight's performance, she's feeling very, very good. Life as a married woman is obviously treating her well. Blige has been paying an annual visit to Wembley for years, and her comfort with the surroundings is obvious. Aptly, in the current football-dominated climate, she plays for just more than 90 minutes. The hyper "Family Affair" is the perfect encore.
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