Although Mary J. Blige and Maxwell’s King and Queen of Hearts Tour is, as the latter noted in his set and in the press, a celebration of the `90s, neither played the part of nostalgia act Tuesday at Spectrum Center (the former Time Warner Cable Arena).
While 20-year-old hits like Blige’s “Real Love” (which dates back to 1992, actually) and Maxwell’s “Ascension” were winners with the crowd, performances of Blige’s new single “Thick of It” and Maxwell’s “Lake By the Ocean” and “Lost” (from his new album “blackSUMMERS’night”) were some of the strongest of the night.
Blige’s older songs took on new meaning in lieu of her divorce from former manager Kendu Isaacs (she filed this summer after 12 years of marriage). She addressed the situation with a bold, grabbed-from-the-headlines video montage before she burst onstage with “Love Yourself,” amid sparkling pyrotechnics and atop a rising platform that towered over her seven-piece band.
Blige followed opener Ro James promptly at 7:30, to the surprise of many who were still filing in the door and searching for seats (with some probably still parking their cars). Fans were arriving well into her set.
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Her set hit heavily on early hits “Love No Limit,” “Share My World” and “Be Happy,” and while fans sang along throughout, it was the last third of her show that resonated emotionally. Following the monster sing-along “I’m Goin’ Down” she introduced “Thick of It” (from her forthcoming album “Strength of a Woman”), almost choking up as she shared her recent struggle and thanked the crowd for their support.
The song addressed her broken marriage, not with defeat or regret but with power. That was the theme of her set – that and self-love. Earlier she’d offered relationship advice on respect and independence.
From there, emotion escalated with “Not Gon’ Cry” and “No More Drama,” which she ended on her knees. Following her second costume change (from one-piece short shorts and tall velvet boots to all leather), she emerged for a finale of “Sweet Thing” and her No. 1 hit “Family Affair.” Missing was one of her biggest hits, “Be Without You,” presumably because she isn’t feeling the sentiment right now.
As others have pointed out, placing Maxwell last is a bit of a head scratcher given that he’s a lower-key artist with fewer hits than Blige, whose career precedes his by five years.
She’s not an easy act to follow, but Maxwell didn’t try to compete by out-pyro-ing her, and the vibe of his set was less about empowerment and more geared toward grown-up romance with touches of political and social commentary.
Following a full set change and recordings of the “Star Spangled Banner” and Prince’s “Kiss,” Maxwell glided onstage with a loud eight-piece band. He exercised that skyrocketing falsetto with “Dancewitme” and “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” from his debut “Urban Hang Suite.” He pointed out that all the microphones were on and that they were really playing their instruments (a dig at the auto-tuned, lip-syncing, backing track trend, no doubt).
He looked sleek and sophisticated jumping from Latin rhythms to gut-wrenching ballads, but it was his cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” that was the emotional climax of the show.
The song took on multiple meanings even before the presidential election, done in low purple lights and beneath a screen projecting images of Prince and David Bowie, followed by footage of Black Lives Matter protests. As it ended he made a plea for the movement and honored those lost.
It briefly changed the tone of a night that mostly offered solace and escapism. He returned to slow sexy jams, removing pieces of his three-piece suit as the night went on. The new song “Lost” could prove a showstopper (once crowds get more familiar with it). The audience was fully with him for “Get To Know You” and “Fortunate,” which led to the night’s capper “Pretty Wings.”
If it was joy the pair intended to spread, they did their job.
I’ve also never seen the arena staff enjoying themselves so much. The usher in front of us, who helped nearly every stiletto-clad woman teetering down the stairs, was all smiles, subtly dancing throughout, clearly enjoying the show.