We all have our musical roots from which we sprout and discover other genres; mine are embedded in hip-hop, soul, and the nuances in between. Thus whilst the last few years have taken me into other directions, when the opportunity arose to see Mary J Blige and Maxwell in concert, on the same night, for the price of one came up, it could not be passed up. Set in the colossal Manchester Arena, the latter might have had my initial excitement but it was the former whose enthralling and authentic performance most subverted my expectations.
We entered the venue as Mary J Blige performed Just Fine and this was followed by a string of hits from her extensive catalogue including You Bring Me Joy, Real Love and Enough Cryin'. Though her sound has become increasingly polished recently - opting for autotune over her raw vocals on the Drake-featuring The One - the live renditions of these newer tracks had a totally different effect. Take Thick of It, a song about the divorce she is currently going through from her husband/manager Martin Kendu Isaacs. Despite the recording of this song being sonically distant from the raw Bronx sound of her earlier work, when performed live it resonated with the crowd and her authenticity shone through as she communicated to the females to not take any bullshit from their partners, and for the men to not ‘dare to raise their hands to a woman’. These messages to the crowd seemed to come from a palpably real place, further adding value to songs such as Be Happy and Enough Cryin – a song which featured Brooklynn (Mary J Blige’s rap alter ego) in spectacular fashion.
While Mary J Blige’s live performance exceeded expectations, Maxwell’s performance was less impressive. His voice is undoubtedly one of the best male voices I have had the privilege of experiencing live, his rendition of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work perfectly demonstrates this as his falsetto hypnotised the crowd. Unfortunately, the authenticity that Mary J Blige exuded was absent during Maxwell’s performance.
He arrived on stage dancing and initially seemed charming but this descended into cringe inducing ‘Ladies get your panties ready’ and ‘Manchester is my favourite city’. It seemed cheesy - unlike the smooth Maxwell I grew up listening to. At one point the screens showed recently hurricane-ravaged Haiti but instead of taking time to discuss this with the crowd, Maxwell seemed to quickly gloss over this tender subject which made the inclusion of the footage seem contrived, consolidating the disappointment in the crowd who were mostly sat down, even during upbeat songs such as No One.
Essentially Mary J Blige succeeded where Maxwell fell short, showing authenticity and raw humanness over glossy and distasteful charm.
Words: Lehin Adenekan
Photography: Katja Ogrin