Carey's show glitters, but singing is tentative

She's still learning how to put on concert

Music Review

September 09, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Washington -- As befitting an often over-the-top pop diva, Mariah Carey's show Thursday night at the Verizon Center was a sparkly, narcissistic affair. The set was definitely expensive - and impressive. Over the two-tier stage stood a giant, ivory "M" flashing shades of red and blue. There was a grand staircase to the left and a huge neon, block-lettered sign that spelled out the singer's nickname: Mimi. Even Carey's mike stand glittered.

And such a spectacle wouldn't be complete without a troupe of limber, gyrating dancers. (Carey had six.) Her seven-piece band, which included the famed DJ Clue, was tight and high-powered. So with all of these superstar stage trappings, a multiplatinum career spanning 16 years and a behind-the-scenes reputation for being a demanding businesswoman, why did Carey come off as a diva with training wheels for most of the show? She seemed so tentative, breezing through several of her songs and disappearing backstage for long stretches to change costumes. (She did this five times.)

Well, we have to cut her a little slack. Although Carey has garnered envious commercial success since the start of her career in 1990 (she has scored 17 No. 1 hits, the most of any female pop performer), the New York-born singer-songwriter has never really gotten around to establishing herself as a concert draw. And her current world tour, The Adventures of Mimi, feels belated. It's in support of her latest album, the calculated but memorable The Emancipation of Mimi, which has sold more than 6 million copies and was the biggest-selling CD of last year. Granted, she currently has a No. 1 hit on R&B radio, the gospel-touched "Fly Like a Bird." But it still feels as if the gaudy, wailing songstress has lost some momentum.

All of that doesn't really matter, though. Carey is out there working hard to ingratiate herself with her fans, even if it seems the world-renowned pop veteran is still learning to put on a show.

The concert's first half was dominated by the hip-hop flavor she has been blending into her substance-free pop formula for nearly a decade. Wearing what looked like a shimmering black bra and panties set with a sheer duster and spike heels, Carey opened with "It's Like That," the Jermaine Dupri-produced club burner from her latest album. During the performance, the singer preened and pranced around and did a few very simple dance moves. (She may have an amazing vocal instrument, but Carey certainly wasn't blessed with rhythm.)

That segued into one of her most hip-hopped songs, 1999's "Heartbreaker," during which the 'hood-rat female rapper Da Brat made one of two dismissible cameos. Carey mentioned several times between songs that the two were the best of friends. She also graciously shared the spotlight with another pal, the lame R&B vocalist and longtime Carey collaborator Trey Lorenz. The two gushingly revisited their 1992 remake of the Jackson 5's ever charming "I'll Be There." Afterward, Carey disappeared while Lorenz did a mini-set of Luther Vandross classics ("Never Too Much" and "A House is Not a Home") and an overwrought take of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."

With fun mixes of old-school R&B and hip-hop cuts with a little reggae and go-go thrown in, DJ Clue kept the near-capacity crowd up and dancing during Carey's long costume changes. For the second half of the nearly 90-minute show, she settled into her early schmaltzy pop diva image, replete with tight-fitting (and unflattering) gowns. This was the segment where Carey could have worked even more of her "vocal magic" because the distracting troupe of dancers was gone. Instead, she opted for an anti-climactic medley of such wail-fest ballads as "Can't Let Go" and "One Sweet Day." She did, however, give full treatment to one of her more touching self-penned tunes, "Hero."

Then Carey predictably ended with the dramatic ballad "We Belong Together," last year's biggest pop single. Her exit was quick as a shower of purple metallic confetti fell on the house.

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