When naming great soul divas of our generation, you would be hard pressed not to mention Mary J Blige. Whitney had it all going on in the ’80s and ’90s, but we’d rather not remember the state that she’s in now. On the flip side Mary continues to produce fresh and relevant material which goes on to sell big numbers. Her latest record topped the Billboard album chart for an astonishing 15 weeks.
Blige hit the music scene in 1998 with a recording of Caught Up In The Rapture, and tonight’s concert comes some seven albums down the line. As the only UK date on her tour, ‘One Night With Mary’ promises songs from 1992 debut What’s the 411? all the way through to 2005’s smash hit The Breakthrough.
As the familiar strains of current Darkchild produced single Enough Cryin’ pump out into the newly reconstructed Wembley Arena, Mary strides into view to meet her adoring public, already on their feet. Filled mainly with twentysomething women and their partners, the venue gives an almost god-like reception – and even her backing singers look honoured to be sharing the stage with her.
From the off it’s breathlessly one song after another, as Blige effortlessly segues across styles and periods of her career. The slinky Mary Jane (All Night Long) sounds as fresh now as it did in 1995 and clearly reminds some of the audience of their first musical encounters with the diva.
While so far maintaining a distant pop star attitude with the audience, it’s now time for Mary to talk to them directly for the first time this evening. While the music plays on, she assumes the role almost of a gospel preacher talking directly to her ‘sisters’. Instructing the women to think independently and not succumb to the desires of their men, she whips them into frenzy with her ferocious take on girl power. Nor is this a one off tonight, as could be seen by a mini-rant on the power of a complete family in a child’s life before Everything.
While the theatrical No More Drama, complete with special squat dancing, almost steals the show, I’m Going Down takes that honour, leaving most of the audience gawping in admiration at this rendition. After praising U2, One elicits a mobiles-in-the-air moment, but it’s worthless in comparison to the spectacular Family Affair encore which sends everyone home with a groove in their step – and an itch in their pockets to buy any forthcoming greatest hits album. Whatever Mary has to say, we’re certainly hearing it loud and clear tonight.