It was four weeks ago when I purchased my tickets to see Janet’s “Unbreakable Tour” stop at the Chicago Theatre in downtown Chicago. So you can imagine the minor scare I had when I read two weeks later that she had cancelled or postponed stops in Salt Lake City, Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis per “doctor’s orders,” with her three shows in Chicago due to begin a week later.
Fast forward to last Wednesday, and all those fears, as well as any doubts about whether Ms. Jackson would be able to recapture the excitement that a Janet of half a lifetime ago generated, were quickly removed.
In fact, when her Unbreakable tour made its stopover at the Chicago Theatre this past week, the youngest of the famous Jacksons put on a show that was simply amazing!
Janet Jackson did not disappoint the thousands of fans that poured into this smallish venue to see the icon perform her greatest hits, plus some new ones. In fact, the only disappointment might have been that she had even chosen this small place, the Chicago Theatre (capacity 3600), considering her stature as a pop music legend. While some might have interpreted that as further evidence of her diminishing relevance in today’s music biz, if one considers that she performed not just one but three shows at this venue in four days, and is slated to return to the Windy City in June 2016 and perform at the much larger Allstate Arena, any thoughts of her not being able to sell tickets some 40 years into her legendary entertainment career were unfounded.
Besides, I actually preferred the intimacy of this theater, particularly with the good seats we were able to secure. I had seen Janet twice before in the 1990s, but never this up close and personal (I couldn’t afford it then), and quite frankly, never with Janet in fuller voice than she displayed this time around.
From the beginning of this 90-minute romp through her vast song catalog, the buzzing crowd was anxious to greet their pop queen. Just before Janet took the stage, a DJ treated arriving fans to a fantastic mix of JJ’s music – old and new, strategically picking songs that were not part of her set list (spoiler alert: I’ve included it at the end of this article). We heard early Janet hits like “Don’t Stand Another Chance” and her first single “Young Love,” both of which were top-ten R&B hits in the first half of the 1980s, before her emergence as a pop superstar later in the decade. Mixed in with those earlier gems were some of the new songs from Unbreakable, along with mid-career hits that didn’t make the set list cut, but succeeded in further whetting our collective appetites nonetheless.
Then the DJ’s music stopped and the house lights dimmed…and the crowd roared in anticipation. Three long silk screens then illuminated on the stage, revealing images of large flocks of birds reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock movie…and the crowd roared again. A still unseen Janet is heard narrating as the computer-generated birds swarm into a frenzy before morphing into a single large black eagle perched in the center screen. Apparently, Janet has adopted the black eagle as a symbol of her own resilience and she metaphorically incorporates it into her tour and album, including the album’s cover artwork and one of its tracks.
Back to the silk screen, eventually the eagle image disappears and is instantly replaced by the silhouette of a standing Janet, striking a confident pose that exudes the same resilience that’s been reflected in her long career and would be in this night’s performance.
And the crowd went crazy!
Janet is quickly accompanied by the video image of her latest duet partner Missy Elliott, who raps the intro to the most aggressive track on her Unbreakable album, “BURNITUP!.” Even though I’m not the song’s biggest fan (see my review of the album here), it was refreshing to see Ms. Elliott enthusiastically paying homage to the evening’s star. The screen bearing Jackson’s silhouette slowly rises to reveal the artist herself, complete with her long fire-red mane swooped to one side as she delivered the opening verse to the Missy-assisted dance track…and the crowd was in a frenzy!
In fact, by this time the entire audience had been on its feet since the house lights were dimmed minutes earlier, with people ultimately only taking their seats for about three minutes during the entire concert. Remember, Janet’s crowd no longer consists of mostly twenty-somethings. Instead, this group ranged in age from their twenties to their fifties (maybe even older), making the crowd’s stamina for standing (and continuously dancing at their seats) even more astonishing. (Later in the show, I was reminded of my own contribution to this older age demographic when my ears reacted negatively to the piercing shrill of screaming fans and again during the louder-than-it-had-to-be electric guitar solos that accompanied “Black Cat,” but I digress.)
After opening with “BURNITUP!,” Janet quickly raced through a medley of her uptempo hits from the past 30 years, giving us about 90 seconds of each as the songs seamlessly segued from one to the other. Each tune struck a chord with the audience who reacted anew as the music transitioned from one song to the next. It was hard to decipher which hit received the most favorable response based on the crowd’s reactions. But I recall “The Pleasure Principle” getting an exceptionally warm welcome during the show’s first half, which was particularly ironic given that it was the only song she released between 1986 and ’96 that failed to reach the pop top ten (although it did top the R&B chart)…further proof that some things just age better with time.
And, in case you’re wondering, Janet’s trademark dance moves were still intact, even if father time’s aging process had removed from her repertoire some of the more intricate parts, which were still required of the much younger dancers that accompanied Jackson onstage, or her “kids” as she would later introduce them. Nonetheless there was still plenty of Janet dancing as she donned a full black body suit that looked more like an armor and less like something that a 49-year-old performer doing a 90-minute concert would wear…and she wore it throughout, not changing her outfit once, also a rare thing for a diva of her stature.
As a further sign of her maturity as an artist, Janet seemed more in command of the stage than what I recalled from 20-plus years ago, with less focus on her dancing and more on her improved live singing ability. In fact, she seemed to hit notes that even the Janet of a half-life ago couldn’t reach. For instance, during the second chorus of “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” in which Janet famously sang an octave higher than in the song’s first verse and chorus, she hit that one high note during the lyrics “past” and “last,” which had been replaced or enhanced by keyboard notes in the original recording.
But if “Pleasure Principle” or “Love Will Never Do” were two of the highlights of the show’s first half, then her ballads were the focus of the second. She opened it with the stellar new track “After You Fall” and segued into several more, including the 1993 classic, “Again,” which seemed to get the loudest audience response when its opening bars were played. When it came time, she implored the audience to sing the opening lines, which they did gleefully and, even more important, accurately. Again, her command was in full display.
In all, Janet Jackson treated us to 32 songs (or parts of them), including all 16 of her #1 R&B singles (and all ten of her pop #1s, some of which had topped both charts). At the end, after the show’s encore performance of “Shoulda Known Better” and “Unbreakable,” the icon thanked us for all our support over the years and for helping make Unbreakable a #1 album. She followed that with another thanks for making “No Sleeep” a number one single for the “ninth week this week.”
The non-discerning fans in the room likely didn’t know or even care that she was referring to her current perch atop the Billboard Adult R&B chart, not the main Hot 100 singles list, which Janet used to rule with regularity. The single peaked at #63 there.
However, after a performance like the one she had just given us, Ms. Jackson could easily be forgiven for this marketing stretch. After all, this night she was number one in the hearts of all those in attendance, and that’s frankly all that mattered.
The Janet Unbreakable Set List for November 4, 2015, at the Chicago Theatre:
- “Miss You Much”
- “You Want This”
- “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”
- “The Pleasure Principle”
- “When I Think Of You”
- “All For You”
- “All Nite (Don’t Stop)”
- “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”
- “After You Fall” (after intermission)
- “Come Back To Me”
- “Let’s Wait Awhile”
- “I Get Lonely”
- “Any Time, Any Place”
- “No Sleeep”
- “Got ’til It’s Gone”
- “That’s The Way Love Goes”
- “Together Again”
- “The Best Things In Life Are Free”
- “Black Cat”
- “Rhythm Nation”
- “Shoulda Known Better”
See where Janet ranks on my list of the Greatest Black Musicians of All Time by clicking here.
And please see my track-by-track review of her #1 album, Unbreakable, by clicking here.
As always, thanks for all the love and support!