They say an artist’s most creative work usually follows a break-up. On Sept. 8, hip-hop soul singer Mary J. Blige brought her “Strength Of A Woman” tour to Reno’s Grand Sierra Resort. Her new album by the same name details the divorce to her husband of 13 years. Though the singer always has had a tough exterior, this performance took the crowd through the frustration, anger, along with the sentimentality and vulnerability that colors the music on her 13th studio record.
“I’m a little crazy, but I’m cool with my crazy. I know who I am,” said Blige as she sat on the steps of her stage set speaking between songs about the hurdles and betrayals she’s faced most recently in her recording career and personal life. (Blige has made no secret of her husband’s infidelities and ultimately the judgment that requires her to provide him with monthly spousal support payments, referring to him as a “con-artist.”) Though all of this negativity is not to paint an image of any type of low-intensity or sullen mood to her performance. Instead, Blige uses these stories in the moments between songs to draw from for what was an unendingly energetic and ecstatic show.
Repeating the theme of saying that she just wants to be happy, Blige played for nearly 90 minutes, her set consisting of hit after hit of music that only those living under a rock since the 1990s would not have heard. In fact, so numerous are the singles spanning the nine-time Grammy Award winner’s career that in order to make them fit, several were performed in a truncated medley style, hitting like a condensed best-of album that many in the audience stood and danced to without a break over the course of the evening.
Accompanied onstage by a five-piece band, three backup singers and a large video screen overhead mixing ambient visuals with music videos and footage of Blige and her song collaborators throughout her career, Blige hit the stage with a badass swagger and dizzying energy that was relentless. Her set list frequently traded the studio production polish of her recorded output for changes in instrumentation that allowed for emphasis on her vocals, a sonic display that shows that 25 years after her debut record, she’s can still make owning a stage and commanding a room appear effortless.
Songs such “I’m Going Down,” with the roar of the crowd singing along, and “Thick Of It,” where Blige’s rapid-fire lyrical delivery only hammered in her versatility as a vocalist, slowly built until climaxing on “No More Drama.” Blige erupted into cathartic roars, the ending of which continued until she literally lay splayed and breathless on the stage, the intensity of the moment felt throughout the Grand Sierra’s large showroom.
A costume change and interludes between songs allowed for solos from each of her backing vocalists, along with a moment where the guitar player picked at the strings with his teeth, contributed to a performance that harnessed that energy, that emotional struggle, those moments of Blige’s vulnerability in expressing her thanks to her audience, ultimately climaxed in the final song of the night, “Family Affair,” where Blige implored the listener to “leave all that BS outside, we gonna celebrate the night!”
Opener Lalah Hathaway’s DJ, DJ Spark, first got the crowd warmed up with a mix of old school hip-hop. Hathaway then took the stage, wearing a Mary J Blige shirt and shiny Adidas shoes, she pulled from her soul catalog reaching back over 20 years, up to her recent collaboration with Pharrell on the “Hidden Figures” soundtrack. Luckily, the old age references soon ended, as despite the age and old-school vibe of some songs, Hathaway’s voice – complemented by her two male backup vocalists – sounded fresh. Though short, and even if her relatively still stage presence was a little underwhelming, the dynamic boom of Hathaway’s voice was a great warm up to the night.