Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo -- two performers who at various points in their careers threatened to disappear -- made a night of it Thursday at the United Center.
A couple decades ago, Blige was so volatile there was some question whether she might live, let alone sustain a long and profitable career.
Blige turned it around, though not without some bumps. “I was on the verge of suicide,” she said Thursday, reminiscing about the singer she was in the early ‘90s. Now she’s as reliable as the sunrise, and this performance was no exception. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word “coast,” and this 90-minute performance presented full-on fury no matter what the footwear, from stiletto boot heels to no shoes at all.
The barefoot Blige was the most formidable of all. Midway through the set, she launched into a clutch of songs that doubled as public therapy session. With her right hand gesturing as though she were pleading for her life in front of an impassive judge during “Not Gon’ Cry,” the singer spat, “You’re not worth my tears.” She was a spiritual counselor in “Love a Woman,” wagging her index finger at an unseen, would-be partner.
“I’m Going Down” turned into a stadium-wide catharsis, with the mostly female audience shouting the lyrics at the top of their collective range, arms raised. “Empty Prayers” brought Blige to her knees, pounding the floor with her hand, spitting out the word “decency” as though it were toxic.
“My Life” allowed her to assume the more regal posture of a jazz singer, accenting some lines with scat-like runs. But the performance was no less dramatic. She found joy again with – what else? -- a Rufus song, “Sweet Thing,” originally with lead vocals by Chicago soul great Chaka Khan. Blige clung closely to the original version, as she had when she kicked off the show with another Khan and Rufus song, “Ain’t Nobody.”
The connection was apt. Like Khan, Blige has persevered. She continues to deliver hits – most of her 90-minute set consisted of charting singles spanning 20 years – without compromising her ferocity as a singer or her connection to her fans. To them, she doesn’t identify as a diva, but as a confidante.
That identity has been built on years of touring and transparently emotional performances. It’s the type of relationship that D’Angelo once enjoyed with his fans, but now must work to rebuild. For the last decade, he has been one of music’s biggest mysteries.
The singer left a deep impression with two classic neo-soul albums, “Brown Sugar” (1995) and “Voodoo” (2000), and an acclaimed 2000 tour, then dropped out. He made sporadic appearances on other people’s albums, but pretty much became a recluse, working on a still-unreleased third album. So his re-emergence this year on various stages around the world has caused something of a stir, the return of R&B’s prodigal son.
In contrast to the gleaming torso he displayed in the past, D’Angelo was a relatively modest presence in a derby hat and loose-fitting clothes Thursday. Though he dialed down some of the overt sex appeal, the singer still had the audience in thrall with an 11-piece band. During the deep funk of “Chicken Grease,” Pino Palladino’s bass resonated with god-like authority. Voices were layered like a horn section on “Lady,” with staccato interjections and wordless counterpoint melodies.
D’Angelo’s voice still climbed and descended the octaves with ease, hitting feathery falsetto peaks and dropping to a sanctified growl on “Untitled (How Does it Feel)," performed solo at the keyboards.
But after six songs and a mere 30 minutes, he was gone. Will we see him again in the next few years? Will the long-awaited follow-up to “Voodoo” ever appear?
Blige added to the intrigue. She explained that the concert was rolling about an hour behind schedule because “Brother D’Angelo had an ‘emergency’ and couldn’t get here on time.” Let’s hope it wasn’t anything serious, because no further information was forthcoming from the performers or promoters. In the meantime, the allure of the enigma was only enhanced.