Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Concert review

Hoarse Mary J. Blige hangs in for an hour

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The self-proclaimed “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” showed up hoarse for work Tuesday night at the Taft Theatre. But it didn't seem to bother anyone else as much as it did her.

        Mary J. Blige raspily and repeatedly apologized during her abbreviated hour-long show. “Thank you for not laughing at me,” she told the half-capacity crowd as she closed her show, promising to do better the next time she came to town.

        She didn't let her cracking voice slow down “The Mary Show.” Her set opened with a five-minute cartoon by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee, which painted her as an avenging action hero, laying waste to bombers, rapists and drug dealers. The real Mary arrived onstage in superhero garb, or at least hip-hop superhero garb - skintight red “pleather” bellbottoms with matching halter top and elbow-length white gloves.

        She was ready to work through her eight years of hits, from “What's the 411,” the rap that first brought the Yonkers, N.Y. native to national attention in 1992, to the jazzy, Lauryn Hill-penned “All That I Can Say,” from 1999's Mary.

        Her weak voice was hidden by a tight ensemble of seven musicians, four singers and four dancers. Her upper range was completely shot, but the rest of her was in fine form and, unlike most of today's divettes, she managed to sing and keep up with her dancers without the benefit of lip-synching.

        But her performance was especially disappointing in light of her 1998 appearance on the Coors Light Festival at Cinergy Field. There, her voice wavered offkey for much of the show as Ms. Blige appeared alternately unfocused and irritated. Tuesday, she was far more personable and professional, but for local audiences she has yet to bring it all together, to deliver in concert what her records merely promise.

        She brought along a couple of up-and-coming opening acts. Former Blackstreet singer David Hollister sang a 25-minute set that showed him to be a Luther Vandross for the new millennium. He even had Luther's quavering bass-to-upper range riff. His reassuring, romantic approach could be seen in his songtitles, “One Woman Man” and “My Favorite Lady.” He also dipped into Blackstreet New Jack Swing catalog for "Tonight's the Night.”

        Ruff Endz kicked the evening off with a 20-minute set that featured songs from the duo's new CD debut, Love Crimes, including their No. 1 hit, “No More.”


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