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Mary J. Blige sings, and empowerment is heard

September 05, 2006|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

Veteran hip-hop soul diva Mary J. Blige had all the trappings of a live pop-R&B extravaganza during her sold-out Sunday concert at Gibson Amphitheatre: a sprawling set, costume changes, video screens, eight-piece band, guest appearances, even pyrotechnics.

But all that faded into the background as Blige remained the focal point with her blend of Aretha Franklin-style vocals, testifying and learn-from-my-life motivational speeches -- always aimed at the ladies, who shouted, "Yeah!"

It was ladies' night indeed, as opening act LeToya projected similar though more embryonic strong-woman values in a 20-minute presentation that revealed her own diva ambitions. An early member of Destiny's Child, the Houston-born singer has recently seen solo success with a chart-topping, self-titled debut album and the hit single "Torn." That love-him-or-leave-him midtempo ballad, along with other tunes combining '70s-style R&B with the latest hip-hop flavors, demonstrated a plucky versatility.

Blige spent most of the two hours alone out front, effortlessly delivering selections from her innovative current album, "The Breakthrough," as well as older favorites such as "Real Love" and "Everything." Connection is her currency, and so she was best when blowing up emotions, building vocal intensity like a classic soul crooner, repeating a line until the meaning exploded in your heart, her face contorting with the power of her voice and the sentiment.

She kicked off in high gear with "Baggage" and "Good Woman Down," propelled by her trademark fusion of hip-hop and old-school soul.

After a long ballad section, including an epic rendition of "Father in You," an ode to her husband, things never fully regained that momentum. A guest turn by Dave Young, the first signing to Blige's new label, jarred the female-empowerment mood with a tune called "Take It Off" (whatever, dude).

Still, the upbeat "No More Drama" reflected Blige's hard-won journey to a measure of inner peace -- gleaned, she informed the crowd, from God as well as truly loving herself and focusing on her own happiness. While remaining a potent musical force, Blige continues to maintain the link that fans find truly inspirational.

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