February 14, 2010
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Mariah Carey doesn’t have to be contemporary and she doesn’t have to be old school because she’s both.
At the Chicago Theatre on Saturday, the first of two sold-out nights, she showed the fruits of a 20-year career: a sampling of crossover pop hits spanning R&B balladry to hip-hop soul. Of course, the former suited her natural inclinations more than the latter — for a singer with such a titanic voice, a speed workout like “Obsessed” (a slick toss-off to Eminem, no less), sounded like calculated slumming.
Instead, her skills came to shine in her older material, which in her possession sounded as ferocious as ever. Yes, her voice occasionally scaled into chipmunk territory — a vocal talent as instinctual as her knowing when to turn it on. But what stood out in isolated moments of Saturday’s show was her ability to produce vocal riffs that overtook songs (“Fly Like a Bird,” “Emotions”) and pushed them higher into mighty pronouncements of pain, desire and inarticulate bliss.
These were moments that continue to give Carey such staying power, despite the dingbat award show acceptance speeches, public breakdowns and horrible movie choices of her past. Unlike the spectrum of ladies in her wake, from Barbra to Beyonce, Carey remains the people’s diva. (There is a reason she is the best-selling artist of the last 20 years, behind only Garth Brooks and the Beatles.) On Saturday, she let us know she is one of us — insisting she was sipping water in a champagne flute less anyone think differently — but when launching into song, her voice said otherwise.
Her show featured a four-person band, three backup singers and nine dancers, all of whom provided enough action that Carey did what most singers these days do not: stand still. While lip-synching and intensive dance choreography have made singing a second banana for most contemporary singers, Carey didn’t feel the need to prove she could dance. As if to prove her point, on “Angels Cry,” the visual was handed to two gymnasts who performed aerial choreography — yet even they became distractions to her vocal calisthenics.
Instead Carey’s show kept pace by mixing up ballads and pop hits, with several costume changes and comedic zingers thrown in for good measure. She relaxed on a chaise lounge where she received hair primping and makeup touch-ups; she also played market researcher by interviewing the audience about whether or not she should endorse her own line of shoes.
Those were the human moments of a 90-minute show that occasionally got worn down by too many costume changes masquerading as musical interludes and shapeless ballads (“The Impossible”) that proved even the best singers can’t better inferior material.
By her encore, Carey delivered “Hero,” her signature anthem. Although she started the show in the rafters, lowered to the floor on a swing while donning a princess gown, by evening’s end she slipped into a black cocktail dress and interacted with the audience like she was hosting a party in her living room. Versatile? Like a fox.