Review: Mary J. Blige roars through a powerhouse performance at Tampa's USF Sun Dome
We can talk in a minute about the ovations that follow songs like Not Gon’ Cry or No More Drama. But first, you have to know how Mary J. Blige sings them.
Blige roars those anthems of resilience and perseverance as if from a body possessed, pulsing and convulsing and punching and flexing, arching her back till it’s almost parallel to the floor, leaping from a crouch time and time and time again, all atop epic black spikes as sharp as sabres.
It should go without saying these hits came late in Blige’s powerhouse concert at Tampa’s USF Sun Dome on Sunday, before a grown and rapturous crowd of 4,076. And while they may be the songs that demanded the most from her 44-year-old body, they weren’t alone in proving why Blige has more than lived up to her title as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.
Blige was exacting in how efficiently she rocked the Sun Dome, wasting not an ounce of her considerable energy from the moment she walked out in those familiar oversized shades.
She's renowned so far and wide as a vocalist that her live presence is probably now somewhat underrated. But for the first 30 minutes of her nearly two-hour show, Blige was in constant motion, working her shoulders, snapping her feet and donning a saucy tilted cap for mid-’90s R&B classics Love Is All We Need and the airy, piano-powered Real Love. When they finally brought out a director’s chair during Don’t Mind, Blige barely leaned on it, resting merely for a moment so she could pump up the ladies and preach directly to the men.
“We want to know that we know that we know that you one million percent have our backs,” she said. “We want to know that we know that we know that you ain’t gonna come down here to abuse us, because we been down that road before.”
It was a theme repeated all night in song, in the stories of strength, scorn and survival that mark tracks like Your Child, Good Woman Down and My Life (“Say what’s on your mind, and you’ll find in time / that all the negative energy, it would all decease / and you’ll be at peace with yourself”).
These songs reflect Blige’s own ups and downs, her abusive relationships and her decades-long battle with alcohol addiction – and the fact that, after a relapse, she’s once again three years sober. All of this, she talked about Sunday, because “once you get a little older, you start to feel like this, where you don’t care what anybody thinks. That’s where I’m at right now.”
It was a crowd-pleasing and career-spanning set, one that nodded very little to her creative dance-music indulgences of recent years, such as her work with Disclosure and Sam Smith. Blige only sang one track, Doubt, from her British pop-tinged 2014 album The London Sessions, and she sold the hell out of it (though she didn’t really need to; every ticket sold on Sunday came with a download of the album).
But the vocal prowess that has made Blige a desired collaborator across all genres was definitely on display, particularly on jazz-kissed numbers like Take Me As I Am and I Can Love You, on which she does not over-sing, but rather lets her voice unwind into an honest and vulnerable breeze.
And while she was content on occasion to trot up and down the stage with her mic to the crowd, letting them handle most of the vocals on her classic covers of Rose Royce’s I’m Goin’ Down and Chaka Khan’s Sweet Thing, she held nothing back on her late-set hits, including rousing closer Family Affair, which sizzled with no less fire than her first few songs.
And, of course, there were Not Gon’ Cry and No More Drama, those twin behemoths of empowerment from the middle chunk of Blige’s career. The former concluded with Blige wailing an epic run on the line, “He wasn’t worth my tears!” The latter built slowly and crescendoed like a tidal wave, with Blige wailing in anguish and leaping from a crouch until she collapsed to the floor at the end.
When the music stopped, she rose and watched the house lights go up to reveal a roaring standing ovation. She crouched at the lip of the stage, taking all of it in, silent, smiling and perfectly still for the only time all night.
-- Jay Cridlin