Mary J. Blige Reliant Stadium March 1, 2013
Watching Mary J. Blige's bravura Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo performance Friday night brought to mind the old, old Hollywood saying about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, except in high heels and backwards. (Kids, ask grandma or just Google it.)
Blige did exactly what all the other RodeoHouston performers thus far this year have, only in six-inch knee-high stillettos rather than boots of the cowboy or motorcycle variety. And she didn't just stand there in front of her microphone, either.
Until a chair was brought out to her, Blige spent a good bit of the entire first half of her set prowling the revolving stage like a high-stepping pantheress, while unable to fight off the contortions brought on by the sheer power of the words she was singing. Her center of gravity is obviously as strong as every other part of her.
The Kroger Black Heritage Day crowd -- a big one -- reflected all the energy Blige radiated right back at her, and then some. It was a Friday night, and people were ready to party. The joint was jumpin', as they say, and the energy in the stadium was electric. (Same as last time.)
"Ain't Nobody," her Chaka Khan & Rufus cover from 2011's My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1), set a high-energy tone, but it was more of a warmup, a chance to get all the levels properly adjusted. The real party, where Blige fully flexed her rafter-reaching voice and gave the first of many shout-outs to her ladies in the house, didn't start until 2001 hit "Family Affair."
After that, she went a mile a minute, rapping on "Enough Cryin'" and stretching all the way back to 1992 debut What's the 411? on "Real Love." That song was another one dedicated to the ladies, but then they all are.
Blige sets up a sort of Christ-like bargain in her music, setting herself up to bear some absolutely brutal heartbreak for the sake of her fans. Negotiating stark emotional trauma seems to have helped Blige with her own personal struggles, but for her fans it's become the gospel according to Mary -- especially when she's going at it like there really is a 100-member choir behind her. (That happened at least three times Friday, as Blige's three backup singers earned every cent of their paychecks.)
The payoff is a personal connection you almost never see, especially as pop music grows more prefabricated, Autotuned and saturated with artificial emotion with each passing year. She didn't even need to sing "Not Gon' Cry" and "Be Without You" Friday night, and in fact barely did as the crowd was more than happy to pick up the slack.
But when Mary J. Blige sings a song, it stays sung, and it's 100 percent the truth. And inspiration and empowerment are as critical to the bargain as pain. In her cover of U2's "One," there's a part of the song where Bono pulls back, as if the emotional weight of his lyrics makes him falter for just a second. Blige plunges right on through.
Blige ripped through her set Friday at such a furious clip she had to add an extra song, "No More Drama." The music is based on the theme from The Young and the Restless, and quite a few of her songs approach the same kind of melodrama as the venerable CBS soap opera. But when Blige injects the power of her force-of-nature voice into those stories -- she sang so hard Friday her whole body literally shook a few times -- catharsis doesn't come any rawer, for either Miss Mary or her audience.
Personal Bias: Just love her.
The Crowd: Ladies' night. Well-behaved husbands/boyfriends.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I don't think Beyoncé can do that."
Random Notebook Dump: Doug E. Fresh's name was written next to "Keep Risin'" on the set list, but the man behind '80s rap essential "The Show" never materialized. Pity.
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Mutton Bustin' Report: The sheep were slippery Friday, and they all ran in a circle after one rider wiped out. Mutton bustin' rules.