Live review: Mary J. Blige/D'Angelo, Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (9/16/2012)



Mary J. Blige
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
Sept. 15, 2012

About three-quarters of the way into Mary J. Blige’s hurricane of hip-hop soul last weekend at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, the singer, in her third costume change of the night — this time, a sleek black evening dress — gracefully but dramatically dropped to her knees, grasped her microphone as though it were a wine goblet, and spat out the bitter lines of “Empty Prayers,” from her latest album My Life II: The Journey Continues. “You just walked out the door,” she sang to the man who spurned her. “You didn’t even have the decency to intervene while I was begging God for you to love me.”

“Empty Prayers” may not be one of Blige’s most memorable ballads, but the grit and passion with which she delivered it Saturday night made it one of those quintessentially Mary J. moments in a 90-minute set that often felt as much like the sharing part of a 12-step meeting as it did a concert. It was Blige’s second Charlotte appearance this month, falling closely on the heels of her performance at the Democratic National Convention. It also was the final night of her Liberation Tour with fellow tortured titan of '90s soul D’Angelo, whose relatively low-key half-hour set featured sometimes radically altered versions of his well-known songs like “Brown Sugar” and “(Untitled) How Does It Feel."

Both D’Angelo and Blige have talked publicly of their struggles with substance abuse, and on Saturday Blige reminded the Charlotte audience of her dark period after a simmering performance of the healing title song from her 2001 album No More Drama, which rides a sample of the melancholy piano theme to '70s soap opera The Young and the Restless. Blige almost died in the early '90s, she told the audience, and it was her fans who helped see her through it. “I love y’all,” she said. “Thank you for staying with me. Thank you for not leaving me. I need y’all.” Then she led the crowd in a singalong on her cover of Chaka Khan’s 1975 hit with Rufus, “Sweet Thing,” from Blige’s 1992 debut, What’s the 411?

If Blige’s show was like a support-group meeting, it was an electric one. Throughout the performance, she stalked the stage in front of a constantly changing backdrop of bright, multicolored lights and LED screens spelling out MJB, crouching like a cat to deliver her more purring, growling and hissing lines, and throwing her fist in the air as giddy fans, mostly women, chanted, "Ma-ry, Ma-ry, Ma-ry." Make no mistake about it: This show was clearly geared to the ladies. Early on, after letting us “fellas” know how much she respected and appreciated us, the singer — then in a curvalicious red power jumper, red designer shades and thigh-high black boots — turned to the women: “But you know, I’m about to get into this thing with you ladies real hard...” she said, then shouted, “Where are all the strong ladies out there?” The theater exploded in a collective female roar.

For them, Blige performed her string of powerful, women-centric songs — “Good Woman Down,” “Not Gon' Cry,” “Love a Woman.” Earlier in the show, she ran through a panoply of hits, from early (“Real Love”) to recent (“Enough Crying”) to blockbuster (“Family Affair”), slipping in a swishing, swaying cover of the Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” with a little tease of scat singing at the end.

D’Angelo’s set was much shorter and more subdued. He reworked “Brown Sugar” and sat at the piano, teasing the audience with the first few bars of “How Does It Feel” before threatening to strip down to his torso (but never fulfilling it) and then finishing the song, shirt intact. Wearing all black with scruffy hair and a long neckless with a silver cross, D’Angelo was in good voice and looked fitter and trimmer than he has in recent years. He can still soar from Marvin Gaye to Al Green to a James Brown scream in a single swash, but he lacked the energy — not to mention the sexy baggy pants and wife-beaters — of his prime late-'90s/early-2000s performances with Questlove’s Soultronics, although his current 11-piece band cooked up a more-than-serviceable mix of funk and soul.

D’Angelo seemed relatively healthy, considering his extended periods missing in action, but there was a sadness to his look, a sense time, desire and hunger have passed him by. Hopefully, this is temporary. Hopefully, he’ll complete that long-promised new album and re-emerge, fully revitalized — or, as they say in 12-step meetings, at least happy, joyous and free.

Mary J. Blige setlist
Ain't Nobody
Family Affair
Feel Inside
Enough Crying
Real Love
Keep Risen'
Love No Limit
Good Woman Down
Don't Mind
Not Gon' Cry
Love a Woman
Mr. Wrong
I'm Going Down
Empty Prayer
My Life
No More Drama
Sweet Thing
Midnight Drive
Be Without You

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