Other reviews: Laura Izibor | Depeche Mode, Amy Winehouse | Ang Lee | Tegan and Sara | Indiana

Last Saturday the air was all on fire – that was the belching, sooty scent of nearby tar pits and drill-sands smoke thick as the gas spilling from the foundations of these outrageous buildings….

Other reviews: Laura Izibor | Depeche Mode, Amy Winehouse | Ang Lee | Tegan and Sara | Indiana

Last Saturday the air was all on fire – that was the belching, sooty scent of nearby tar pits and drill-sands smoke thick as the gas spilling from the foundations of these outrageous buildings. It is hard to imagine this in front of a spectacular sidewalk full of performers from Electric Lady Studios (which the executive producer of Saturday’s free show was Dame Eve). Tony Bennett and his delightful wife, Andrea Bocelli, also sang with Amy Winehouse’s backing band, the Backstreet Boys brought out teenage heartthrob Andrew Cuomo, and Depeche Mode proved here in New York their chemistry is still tight and their new album, Violator, is great.

But the one who stole the show was Mary J Blige. On her mix-tape for CBS radio (Soul Sister, 1992), her 2005 album, Growing Pains, and now for her 10th studio record, Strength of a Woman, Blige makes a convincing argument that she is a modern-day Dionne Warwick in the making. She mixes smooth R&B and jazz with self-help messages like “Get off your soapbox,” or songs about empowerment like “Down With Mary J.” The vibe is easygoing, soothing, lovely, and very hip. The problem is that she is too mainstream.

Blige is in over her head here. Her songs too preachy. In Sing to Me, Blige even finds herself ponying up advice for her congregation (“Don’t rush into a transaction,” “I’m going to get my Ramen and microwave up my chicken”), having forgotten that one of her best tunes, “Think About It,” is all about reacting to an immediate struggle instead of continuing to waffle about the past. “The biggest goal in life,” she sang, “Is not to get married.”

Others nodded quietly to her audience. Hetty Johnson, a young girl of thirteen, listened respectfully as her dad sang Procol Harum’s paean to the ideal of American family life, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Johnson liked her dad’s singing, but not his sense of humor, who yelled: “Way to go, Andrea Bocelli!” “Good-bye, Perfume,” Blige sang, “now go out and sell some more weed, kill a kid and get your pound of flesh.” The father nodded. “Have a nice day!”

But this is not a day to be letting something slide. Not as a singer with a million hits, no matter how the catcalls. Not a woman who has gone from sheltergirl to mature, best-selling singer with an Oscar in 1992. Stronger is too much and, for Blige, too ordinary.

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