Mariah Carey may have been wheeled out on a throne at the beginning of her opening act in Chicago last night, but it was clear by night’s end who the true music royalty was.
Carey, herself a singer of legendary status who has more number one singles than anyone not named Elvis or the Beatles, was the opening act at Chicago’s United Center for legendary singer/songwriter and composer (and former Commodore) Lionel Richie.
It was her status – that of opening act – that surprised many, including the Uber driver that brought us to the venue (“she’s opening for him?). But, for better or worse, Carey lived up (or down, depending on one’s perspective) to the title, with a Saturday night performance that was better than expected – I’ll give her that – but certainly not the type of show you’d expect from someone with 18 No. 1 singles, dozens more other hits, and who is only a decade or so removed from her ’90s and ’00s heyday.
Lionel Richie, however, hasn’t had a chart-topping pop single in 32 years (Carey was only 15 when Richie’s last No. 1, “Say You Say Me,” topped the Hot 100; conversely, Richie was 59 when Carey had her last, “Touch My Body” in 2008).
Yet, it was Richie who was the clear headliner on this Chicago tour stop on August 26. The former Commodores lead singer will be 70 years old before this decade is over, yet he showed no signs of slowing down, fully living up to the title of his landmark 1983/84 album, Can’t Slow Down.
Carey, by contrast, never sped up. She barely even moved from the time she was rolled out on stage in that throne to the time she exited. The most movement she gave us was in the 20-year-old video footage that played behind her on the screen or when one of her dancers would pick her up and twirl her around before carrying her offstage for another costume change.
Indeed, the pairing of Lionel Richie with Mariah Carey was initially a head scratcher for many, including yours truly. And anyone expecting this show to be a study in contrasts – two polar opposite entertainers whose only commonality is that they both regularly topped the pop and R&B charts during their peak years – would not have been disappointed.
The two performers were remarkable in their differences. It was a true case of showman versus showgirl; the wiser, age-defying gentleman versus…well…
For starters, Carey’s show began vainly enough with her being wheeled out on that meme-worthy throne-like chair before being carried off it by one of her dancers as she launched into the self-flattering song, “I’m That Chick.”
Richie’s, on the other hand, began more humbly with the crooner seated at the piano and cranking out the introspective ballad “Easy,” which he wrote and recorded with the Commodores in 1977.
On her next tune, Carey saw fit to bring out ’90s rapper and “good friend” Da Brat, the brash Chicago (really Joliet) native who, save for a stint on Ricky Smiley’s radio show and a recent episode of “Empire,” no one apparently outside of Mariah Carey has seen or heard from since mid-00’s reality TV show “The Surreal Life.”
Da Brat played the role of hype man to Diva Carey – who by this point had returned to her throne – as the two carved up the remixed version of Carey’s 1997 No. 1 hit, “Heartbreaker.” Da Brat pimp-walked around Carey’s huge chair as she rapped her verses, with ’90s images of the two performers scrolling behind them on the huge video screens (a recurring theme for Carey’s performances, btw).
Lionel Richie, however, showcased true musicians – often letting them stand side by side with him as they expertly played harmonica, guitar or other instruments to his tunes.
And while Carey’s performances excluded any live big-screen footage of herself – opting instead for music videos from her glory years – Richie, who has arguably aged even more gracefully than Carey with 21 more years on his birth certificate, was all about the present as far as his big-screen images went. His well-preserved face and wide, approving smile flashed across the screen several times, either during performances or during the many in-between pauses and stories the iconic singer gave the audience.
Carey did showcase other guests onstage though.
At one juncture, she introduced Daniel Moore, her longtime keyboardist and backup singer; and Trey Lorenz, who famously dueted with the singer on her remake of Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” in 1992. Together, the three of them belted out Mariah’s biggest hit single “One Sweet Day,” the song that as of this writing precariously holds the record for most time at No. 1 on the Hot 100 – sixteen weeks – a fact that did not go without mention by Ms. Carey.
Then, strangely, Mimi exited the stage, leaving Trey Lorenz alone to introduce the band members and fellow backup singers. That was apparently too tall a task for a diva of Carey’s stature to fiddle with. Lorenz also killed it on the Stevie Wonder-penned tune “All I Do” (from his Hotter Than July album) during his spotlight moment.
Earlier, during “Always Be My Baby,” Carey’s twin six-year-old kids (by former husband Nick Cannon), Morocco and Monroe, graced the stage. At several points while the music played, Mimi tried (unsuccessfully) to get her apparently shy daughter Monroe to sing along, while Morocco – oblivious to all that was going on around him, played with his mom’s throne chair behind them. While the moment was cute and certainly Access Hollywood-worthy, it couldn’t help but feel like an excuse for Mariah to not have to sing some of the song’s tougher parts as she beckoned her daughter in vain to do the job.
Contrarily, while Carey showcased her own kids, Richie was reminding the crowd of the many other people’s kids his music helped create. Before playing his 1984 country-soul-pop ballad “Stuck On You,” which I wouldn’t consider a baby-making tune, but we’ll go along with Richie on this one, he told the story of a 275-pound man backstage who informed Richie before the show that he had “made love to him many times” before clarifying that it was Richie’s music to which the man was referring.
It was just one of the many stories Lionel Richie waxed funnily about.
For example, Richie spotlighted several couples in the audience, including a mother-daughter pair who were seen grooving hard to the Commodores’ “Brick House” like it was 1977 all over again. Richie, who had “the best seat in the house,” spent several minutes indulging various members of the audience in this way as their images were graciously displayed on the gigantic stage screens behind him.
The closest Mariah came to giving the audience that kind of attention? That came about 20 minutes in when she spotted a fan holding a hand-drawn poster of the diva seated in that same throne-like chair to which she was inextricably linked. She beckoned him to hand her the drawing as she admired it before launching into her most recent No. 1 hit, 2008’s “Touch My Body.”
Just minutes later, after singing “I Know What You Want” – her ’90s duet with rapper Busta Rhymes – the singer took an odd on-stage break disguised as a “glam moment.” During it, several stage hands suddenly appeared and indulged Mimi by applying makeup and hair coiffure. The only real moment in all of this was when Carey sheepishly asked, “Is this too over-the-top?”
But things weren’t all bad for Mariah. In fact, the show turned out to be better than that New Year’s Rockin’ Eve 2017 performance (and the many Mimi memes it generated) would have foretold.
She hit (and held) several high notes, although admittedly in a lower vocal register, including most notably on the No. 1 hit “Don’t Forget About Us.” And, before anyone asks, no she was NOT lip syncing – she really did sing all twelve songs credited to her on this night. YouTube videos are circulating now with headlines like “she SLAYED,” and “KILLED IT!,” which, while that’s going a bit overboard, it’s something you don’t get by faking it.
Conversely, things weren’t always so great for Lionel.
On several tunes – particularly “Penny Lover” and some of the uptempo ones – he appeared to be singing too far ahead of the music, pausing briefly or inserting one of his famous “aaaahs” to allow the songs to catch up. On a few others, his mic was nearly inaudible – the result of either the singer not holding it close enough or the band’s amplifiers being turned up too high.
Still, Richie was the truer showman, as shown on extravagant performances like “Dancing on the Ceiling,” which got the full dazzling video and light-show treatment (along with a surprising infusion of the famous keyboard riff from Van Halen’s “Jump”); and “Hello,” for which a huge disco ball (go figure) descended from the ceiling with spotlights hitting it to produce thousands of white lights that moved around the venue while Richie crooned his signature ballad at the piano.
There was also the lively throwback Commodores medley, which included a seven-song stretch of hits like “Three Times A Lady,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” and the pleasantly surprising minor 1977 top-40 hit, “Fancy Dancer.”
Other Commodores tunes were cleverly rearranged to include snippets of other artists’ hits from their eras. “Sail On” contained a brief interpolation of Switch’s “I Call Your Name,” while “Brick House” was infused with pieces of the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight” and “Fire.” (I wonder how many people left the venue believing the Commodores originally recorded “Fire.”)
Mariah Carey, the 47-year-old diva who closed her show with crowd pleasers like Number Ones “Vision of Love,” “We Belong Together” and “Hero,” clearly left a lot of hits on the table. She only sang half of her 18 chart toppers, and even fewer of the other songs that she made famous in the ’90s and later.
But when you’re an opening act, as Carey clearly was here, you’re only given so much time to prove your mettle. The 75-minute show was just enough time for the diva to show that, despite recent evidence (and some very funny memes) to the contrary, she still has some of the chops that made her one of the most accomplished singers of her generation.
Lionel Richie, 68 and still sounding great (when you could hear him), naturally displayed all the showmanship and pizzazz of a true headliner and superstar.
Anyone still wondering why the billing on this “All The Hits Tour” is Lionel Richie “with very special guest Mariah Carey” need wonder no more.
Mariah may be special, but Richie was legendary.
* Between them, Mariah Carey (18) and Lionel Richie (9) were responsible for recording or writing 27 Number One hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1978’s “Three Times A Lady” (Commodores) and 2008’s “Touch My Body” (Carey).
* Blown opportunity: Both Lionel and Mariah had big hits with “Endless Love,” the song Richie wrote and originally recorded as a duet with Diana Ross in 1981. It would have been nice if Richie and Carey would have teamed up to perform it here.
* Tear-jerker moment: Richie paid tribute to several artists we’ve lost over the past “year and a half,” including Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Maurice White, George Michael and Prince, before launching into “We Are The World,” the tune he cowrote with the late Michael Jackson in 1985.
* True Diversity: The roughly 30,000 people who filled the United Center were about as diverse a crowd as I’ve seen in the past three years. There were young and old; black, white, Latino and Asian; straight and gay people in attendance, a refreshing change from other shows I’ve written about in djrobblog.
- “I’m That Chick”
- “Heartbreaker” w/ Da Brat (remix and original versions)
- “Touch My Body”
- “I Know What You Want”
- “My All”
- “Always Be My Baby”
- “Don’t Forget About Us”
- “One Sweet Day” (w/ Daniel Moore, keyboardist and singer; Trey Lorenz)
- “All I Do Is Think About You” – Trey Lorenz’ solo (Tammi Terrell and Stevie Wonder cover)
- “It’s Like That”
- “Vision of Love”
- “We Belong Together”
- “Hero” (encore)
- “Easy”/”My Love” (medley)
- “Running With The Night”
- “Penny Lover”
- “You Are”
- “Stuck On You”
- “Dancing On the Ceiling”
- “Three Times a Lady”
- “Sail On”
- “Fancy Dancer”
- “Sweet Love”
- “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”
- “Just To Be Close To You”
- “Brick House”/”Skin Tight”/”Fire” (the latter two: Ohio Players covers)
- “Say You Say Me”
- “We Are The World”
- “All Night Long (All Night)”