Her band tucked neatly away behind video screens, tonight Mary J Blige has the vast Roundhouse stage to herself.
And she owns it, too, her 24-carat gold bob iridescent under the lights, strutting and dancing like Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing and stomping the floorboards with six-inch heels that show not even the slightest hint of tottering, so hard you can almost hear them above the cheers and the chants of “Mary! Mary!”
The connection between the New York R&B icon and her audience is palpable. Despite selling platinum albums for over two decades, she remains keenly relatable. Blige doesn’t play at being unbreakable like some of her contemporaries: she sings like she knows broken too well, like she’s tasted love that can destroy you, and the self-knowledge that rebuilds you. It’s what makes the after-the-storm bliss of Real Love not mawkish but moving, and lends the devotional You Bring Me Joy a darker subtext.
She revisits these defining hits in an exhilarating opening blitz she describes as “the history of Mary J Blige”. Then, halfway in, she announces “the evolution” of Blige, signalling several songs from new album The London Sessions which unites her with British soul and dance talent including Sam Smith, Disclosure, and the ubiquitous Emeli Sandé. Blige relishes the doo-wop confection of first single Therapy, which possesses the charm of Winehouse’s Rehab while turning that song’s self-destructive sentiment on its head. The quality of her vocal – of a pre-Auto-Tune vintage, rich with grain – redeems the schmaltzy leanings of Not Loving You, while the silken, house-y throb of Disclosure’s F For You proves an unexpectedly fine fit. As it peaks, a giddy Blige pogos at the lip of the stage like a pilled-up raver at a Skrillex concert.
Soon she’s revisiting the back catalogue for a final victory lap. Bolts of lightning crackle across the video-walls to announce the coming of perhaps her finest and most cathartic anthem, No More Drama, and with its opening notes the seated take to their feet, while those in the stalls flick their cameraphones to video. The song – and her performance of it tonight in particular – captures Blige at her best, eschewing vocal melisma and acrobatics for something less decorous and more visceral.
As No More Drama’s near-operatic, minor-key sweep reaches its apex, Blige falls to her knees, lost in an ecstasy of agony, screaming as sure as singing. It’s a moment that’s equal parts exorcism and entertainment, but Mary’s indulging in high drama, not mere histrionics – the sort of moving, remarkable performance that proves her a true queen of soul. On tonight’s evidence, her reign shows no sign of ending.
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