I sit in the opera house darkness. A sea of crowns sway shadowy. A voice screeches in excitement, and then fast quietens. The stage glows hyperfluorescent; instruments, struck by light, scintillate. The track ‘Love Yourself’ starts playing, her voice fills the silent space. Everyone braces for her entry.
Mary J. Blige runs onto the stage, the crowd shakes and screams and sighs. A large number of veteran, ‘Since 1992’, What’s the 411? fans throw themselves back and forth and howl at MJB-queen, mother-real. Her first album’s title, What’s the 411?, was a reference to her past work as a 4-1-1 operator, dealing with telephones and disembodied exchanges.
She swings through ‘Family Affair’ and ‘I’m Goin Down’. Now a choir, we all sing in unison as she turns her microphone to our mouths.
In the middle of the set, she plays a string of songs in quick succession – ‘No More Drama’, ‘U + Me (Love Lesson)’ and ‘Love Yourself’ to name a few. Her voice is crystalline-sharp but coarse. She shoots high fidelity cadences and shakes her voice tremulous with emotion. ‘No More Drama’ is a vocal and emotional spectacle. As she howls, “no more pain”, her voice buckles but holds, tears clean. She reaches a transcendent fervour, coos and calls soulfully – the audience, arrested and awed, stand still in watch.
Mary J. Blige is a titan-empath, as she performs she tugs everyone to her and draws from the crowd’s collective life-energy. She collapses the exchange-relation that is very often present between ‘artist’ and ‘consumer’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘spectator’. Rather, we are partaking in her particular history and experiencing the throes of her present.
A black chair is placed on the stage, she hovers before it. She sits and begins exhorting the women, the survivors and the lost. She pauses and acknowledges, replies to people calling to her from the stalls. She transforms the concert hall, a palace of ‘high capital art’, into an intimate song-symposium, a gathering.
Photo: Dan Boud
We all rise up and dance together, and at one point we cast our fists into the space above our heads, in self-affirmation. She guides us through the extended maze of her struggle and then heaves into light and love. She tells the men to never strike or abuse the women in their lives and then furnishes upon us a take-it-or-leave sermon on self-gratitude and avowal. These monologues, of both mind and heart, served as moments of rest between the roaring and taxing forces in her performance. It was a blessing to be allowed entrance into her in-world, her interiority.
I must end on how deeply I appreciate Mary J. Blige’s dancing. She has these unchoreographed dance pieces that are expressive and beautifully mangled. Sometimes she pulls a move so odd, perhaps a hyperextended elbow with a reverse moonwalk, and manages to make it look cool. She felt like that hyperactive friend who continuously warps their body in dance. (I too, am one of those ‘friends’).
Mary J. Blige was glorious and gutsy. A real god-woman.
Mary J. Blige plays at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall tonight and will appear at Bluesfest 2017 this week.