Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rapt crowd welcomes back Blige

A week and a half after her performance during the final night of the Democratic National Convention, Mary J. Blige returned to Charlotte for the final night of her Liberation Tour with D’Angelo.
Much of the crowd was fashionably late to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre Saturday. Hundreds, having crawled from I-485 for an hour, still streamed through the gate as D’Angelo finished his set at 9 p.m. But it may have well been the best concert crowd of the year meeting Blige’s intensity and enthusiasm note for note.
Following D’Angelo’s set, which highlighted his swoon-worthy falsetto, balanced funkier material with piano crooning, and ignited the crowd with tracks like “Lady” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” Blige began her nearly hour and a half set at 9:30 with a motivational voiceover about how far she and her fans have come. That theme extended throughout an emotional evening that began with Blige leading the blissful crowd through Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Ain’t Nobody” in nearly thigh high leather boots and a short red jumpsuit with sequined lapels that gleamed like Christmas candy.
She and her eight-piece band immediately hopped into “Family Affair” (which she’d played for the DNC crowd), quickly segued into the newer track “Feel Inside” (from her latest album “My Life II”), and on into “Enough Cryin’.” 
Blige has become such a model of maturity, class and fashion it’s almost easy to forget her streetwise beginnings until she breaks into a rap during “Enough Cryin’,” unleashes dance moves to cries of “Go Mary!” for “Love No Limit,” and tugs at her rising shorts following the workout that is “Real Love.” To women, she remains "one of us." Her continued relatability - matched with her tireless performance and killer pipes - is part of the reason she can still pack an amphitheater with well over 10,000 people 20 years into her career.
Having hit on an extended medley of seven songs in only twenty minutes, Blige stopped for some of that relating encouraging the women in the audience (while acknowledging the men) to pursue education and employment as she introduced the female empowerment anthem “Good Woman Down.” That theme continued through “Everything,” which proceeded a quick change from red short suit to black evening gown and bare feet.
“Not Gon’ Cry” began an emotional roller coaster with Blige shedding a few tears. “Real Woman,” “Mr. Wrong,” and “I’m Goin' Down” seem to represent a journey that most of the crowd could relate to - in and out of a bad relationship and the self-acceptance that follows. Blige appeared blown away by the crowd’s response during this segment. At times she stepped away from the microphone as tears dotted her cheeks and let the crowd take over. Even the men sang hands raised in the air in support as if moved by a church service. 
The crowd proved more than once that it knew every single word (and could actually sing!). There were times she let them sail right through the first verse and chorus before stepping in. While lesser singers sometimes rely on a crowd to cover for their vocal shortcomings, Blige is no lazy singer. In fact she was flawless, but the crowd seem to revel in offering its lyrical support. Although I would’ve liked to hear more Mary, especially during the encore of “Be Without You” for instance, which was practically all crowd.
The last portion of the show began with an intense rendition of “No More Drama” and found Blige in a formfitting white jumpsuit with leopard print boots (pictured above) that hit over the knee. She hit on “Sweet Thing,” “Be Happy,” and “You Bring Me Joy” before introducing “Midnight Drive” and closing with “Just Fine” and “Be Without You.”   
“People want to remember the worst thing about you,” she preached, summing up her message before inviting the massive crowd to an after party at 5th Element. “You gotta remember the best thing about you…thank you for never leaving me.”