By Mark Guarino
A big hurt calls for big healing. Enter Mary J. Blige, whose songs are designed for exorcising pain and voice is made for maximum expulsion.
Hip-hop’s preeminent soul queen headlined the austere Auditorium Theatre Friday, the first of two nights. Scooting offstage after a trim 90-minutes would otherwise feel like cheating if she was in someone else’s shoes. But in that time period, Blige had to remind herself just to breathe. She transformed her entire show into one long workout that never dipped below exhilarative. Divided into segments where Blige tied together songs by their ends and delivered them in their entirety on one platter, every fiber of every second was set on high alert. For the crowd kept on its feet most of the time with her, it was a non-stop rush.
The momentum built between Blige and her audience was similar to vintage live recordings of Marvin Gaye. Consisting of just keyboards, bass and percussion, the grooves kicked in sparsely until Blige robustly filled the spaces with the timbre of the song first, which at first note, connected more than the words.
“Keep Your Head” could have been sung in French and she still would have plugged in to its grief. The snug soul conversation relayed urban hope for “children of the ghetto…always in the news.” But Blige stretched it further by deepening her interpretation. Testifying “I’m from the ghetto myself/and have got to keep my spirits up,” she drove the song to its spine until it shook.
That depth of maturity is well earned. A child of the housing projects in Yonkers, N.Y., Blige debuted ten years ago under the wings of producer/mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. Her slouchy, street tough image gradually grew into the empowered and expressive singer found on the 1999 classic soul album “Mary” (MCA) and last year’s more beat heavy “No More Drama” (MCA). In a marketplace crammed with mock divas who look better than they sing, she’s a rare vocalist who avoids flashy, vocal histrionics and sings from the gut.
Friday’s show had some of the elegance Blige displayed at this year’s Super Bowl. But she looked most comfortable unwinding with more party flavored jams like the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything” and her own slinky-grooved “Family Affair.” She was joined by four dancers working simple, old school moves.
Although most of the night was centered around troubled romance, like the Lauryn Hill-penned ballad “All That I Can Say,” Blige busted the room open with big synth-funk numbers like “Love.” She may have a voice like a salve, but shouting out the word’s four letters like a cheerleader, she didn’t forget hurting can be remedied with fun.