REVIEW: Mary J. Blige visit showcases current minimalistic, honest approach

Photo courtesy of Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion / Via Facebook

Can a tough woman also be vulnerable? 

Can a super sassy woman also be very sensitive?

Also, can someone putting on a show be simultaneously honest?

Mary J. Blige‘s answer, which she delivered onstage Saturday night at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, was ‘yes’ to all of the above.

Next at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion

Who: ZZ Top’s “The Tonnage Tour” with opener Austin Hanks
When: 7:30 p.m. June 9
Where: Arkansas Music Pavilion, Rogers
Cost: Starting at $36 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or visit for information.

Blige and her backing band put on a many-layered show for a smaller-than-normal-sized crowd on a beautiful Saturday night. It was a strange event for several reasons. Blige really isn’t on tour right now, and the AMP appearance doesn’t even show up on her website (it really doesn’t!)

But she performed on Friday morning at the Walmart Shareholders’ meeting in Fayetteville, putting on what amounts to a condensed private concert for the 14,000 or so Walmart employees gathered from around the world for a hyperactive business meeting.

Blige thanked Walmart by name late in the proceedings. There was a distinct feeling that without the Friday morning gig, there would not have been a Saturday evening one.

She also thanked the crowd, repeatedly. You don’t always get the impression that the “thanks” at concerts are sincere and they are more of a perfunctory response at the end of each song. But Blige definitely sounded like she meant it – and she needed it, too.

The concert was – to keep adding dichotomies – both somber and inspiring. The hip hop/soul/gospel artist’s most recent album, 2017’s “Strength of a Woman,” deals with her recent divorce head on.

Many times she would preface her tracks by taking about the difficult things she was going through. “Life is so hard. But it’s so beautiful at the same time,” she told the crowd before jumping into “No More Drama,” a song she wrote even before she married (and later divorced) her longtime manager. During the middle of the song, as she danced in the center of the stage under the bright spotlight, she uncorked a guttural, wild-eyed scream that showed she was channeling some of that drama from the past.

That scream was the most vivid and memorable representation of Blige’s style. But her songs followed in that pattern for much of the night. She was at her best when allowing her three backing vocalists to carry the melody, allowing her to riff over the top the way a rhythm guitar and lead guitarist might interact. When she danced during the songs, she was even better, although she mostly just pranced at the front of the stage.

The stage, meanwhile, was pretty bare bones. Blige had her backing band, which included a keyboard player, guitarist, bassist, drummer and the three backing vocalists. The stage featured several light columns and a divide in the middle for Blige to enter an exit through. As recently as last fall, if Youtube videos can be trusted, she was touring with a coordinated series of videos to accompany her songs, but there was no such aesthetic here. I’m uncertain if that’s because we caught her between tours or if she’s retired that from her performances to rely on her voice.

It should also be noted that there were no opening acts. Blige and company went on stage at 7:50, played 22 songs and were done by 9:20. There was no encore. It was perhaps the earliest I’d been back to my home in Fayetteville after an AMP show since the venue moved to Rogers.

So while it was underwhelming in some ways, it delivered in many others. Like Blige told the crowd in a moment of honesty, her life is “really, really real.” Which means complicated and diverse, trying and fun.

Mary J. Blige Setlist Walmart AMP, Rogers, AR, USA 2017