A Mary J. Blige performance should be atop every single person's concert list.
There's no one, and nothing, quite like Blige onstage. Every moment of her set feels urgent and inspired. Her Sunday set at Toyota Center was one of the strongest I've seen all year.
Blige came charging out of the gate, in tight red and thigh-high boots, to the groove of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody." It gave way to some of her best material, including "Family Affair," "Feel Inside," "Enough Cryin" and debut hit "Real Love," sung almost in its entirety by the raucous crowd.
Those are bold moves for a headliner. But Blige knows how to work, and keep, an audience.
Between songs, she talked about self-confidence and love and hurt. It might sound canned coming from a lesser performer. But Blige imbues every word, spoken or sung, with the sting of hard-won experience.
Even the slower moments brought much of the arena to its feet. "Don't Mind" was accented with improvised riffs and playful backing vocals. She teased a bit of swooping ballad "Everything" before retreating for a costume change, returning in a black gown for a searing version of "Not Gon' Cry."
She offered bits of newer tunes "Love A Woman" (co-written by Beyoncé) and "Mr. Wrong" before tearing into "I'm Going Down," sequencing the trio of songs as scenes of a bad relationship.
Blige's power isn't in just one thing. It's her voice but also the way she performs a song. It's her lyrics but the way she connects with every single action. It's also in the way she switches almost instantly from joy to pain.
"Empty Prayers," a ballad from her "My Life II" disc, was a stunner under the spotlights -- just Blige and pleading heartbreak. And no matter how many times she does it, Blige turns "No More Drama" into a thundering, bittersweet anthem of hope. It's an awe-inspiring moment.
Then, she was back to the joyous sway of Khan's "Sweet Thing" and "Just Fine," whose exuberance echoes "Off the Wall"-era Michael Jackson. The crowd again chanted most of the lyrics to set closer "Be Without You," and just like the tune commanded, all hands were up. Even fellas who sat through most of the show while their dates danced.
Opener D'Angelo hasn't released an album in 12 years. But his hourlong set earned a warm, familiar welcome (and more than a few hysterical screams). He entered from the middle of arena, strapped on his guitar and dove into the funk-soul-brother territory of Prince on tunes "Left & Right," "Brown Sugar" and "Chicken Grease." There's also a bit of James Brown showmanship in the way D'Angelo works a crowd and a microphone stand.
He debuted strong new songs "Another Life" and "Sugah Daddy," which showcased his sweet falsetto. The band was uniformly terrific, including drummer Chris Dave, a graduate of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston.
The crowd sung along with a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," but it proved a mere warmup for the frenetic energy that greeted signature tune "Untitled (How Does It Feel)."
"Take it off!" yelled several female fans, referencing the steamy music video. He didn't. But the tease was enough to satisfy.