Mary J. Blige capped off 2011 Essence Fest with a gallery of hits

July 5, 2011
Mary J. Blige has put in her time at Essence Fest. In 2010, she threw down the gauntlet on the main stage ahead of closing act Earth, Wind & Fire, which paled in comparison to her ecstatic set and rapturous reception.

Not surprisingly, Blige was promoted to the closing slot for this year’s Essence. On Sunday night in the Superdome, she once again connected with her devoted sisterhood of fans, even if that connection was not as electric as last year’s.

Blige strode onstage in a thigh-revealing ensemble of tall, black fringed boots and short, black fringed skirt/shorts. Despite all her success and wealth, she easily taps into the pain and hurt that haunted her past. Backed by five musicians, three singers and two dancers, all clad in white, she inhabited every lyric, singing with purpose and resolve.

It is the nature of live performance that the same act, in the same setting, in front of a similar audience, simply may not work as well from year to year. After New Edition’s crowd-pleasing Sunday night reunion, Essence was primed for a big finish. But the early going of Blige’s set was light on anthems. The percentage of standing-versus-sitting fans on the Dome floor tilted toward the latter, always a troubling sign.

Perhaps sensing she was losing them, Blige patiently went about the task of winning them back. “I know ya’ll are tired,” she said. During “Reminisce,” she broke into a hip-swiveling, arm-swinging dance; chants of “Go, Mary! Go, Mary!” finally rang out. More folks stood.

In “Love No Limit,” she promised, “I’ll make sure you’re satisfied,” over the song’s funky bass line. She testified before calling up her call-to-arms, “Good Woman Down,” wailing, “You can’t hold me, you can’t hold a good woman down.” She slowed down for “Seven Days,” then excoriated the lover who fathered, then abandoned, a child with another woman. “He was only a baby,” Blige shouted/sang. “He needed a father. What would make you walk away from your child?”

By the time she arrived at “I Am,” the tide had begun to turn in her favor. She cruised through Chaka Khan's “Sweet Thing,” testified once again in “Not Gon’ Cry” and let the audience gleefully sing most of “I’m Going Down.” She heaved herself into “No More Drama.”

Having resolved to move on, she uncorked “Just Fine,” with its carefree chorus, and the stuttering dance club strut “Family Affair.” The latter two assert that, after paying the price to earn one’s happiness, it’s OK to enjoy it. Blige obliged.



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