Review: Mariah Carey cautiously transitions into a new phase at Sony Centre

The R&B icon played in a more intimate venue, with deep cuts and memeable moments, but she still seems wedded to the arena-sized concert format


MARIAH CAREY at Sony Centre, Wednesday (March 20). Rating: NNN


Don’t call it a reboot. Mariah Carey has downsized from arena status in Toronto to a soft-seat theatre and it’s definitely a good thing.

The American R&B diva with 18 number one hits on the Billboard charts has had a shaky couple of years – a reality show, the New Year’s Eve gaffe, going viral for all the wrong reasons – where the focus seemed to be on everything but the music. That changed last year with the release of her Caution album, a concise collection of R&B that pushed her witty songwriting and five-octave range into more contemporary and adventurous sonic terrain.

As a result, Caution landed on several top 10 lists and the press narrative shifted from “Can she still sing?” to “she has written her own songs for years and people are finally taking notice.”  

So a chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue for the gathered faithful was hard to pass up, though she’s still wedded to the arena-sized format.

Though the set was heavier on deeper cuts and new material than past tours, Carey slotted those songs into big pop show beats and pacing, which strangely works against her relaxed energy and penchant for casual banter and bon mots. On the other hand, the Caution tour put the emphasis squarely on her vocal range with a set list that allowed for plenty of crowd-pleasing low-notes and whistle runs.

Opening with Lil Kim-sampling Caution single A No No, Carey appeared in blinding sequins below a giant red LED “M” at the back of a tiered stage. A tight five-piece band, four impeccably chiseled back-up dancers and three pitch-perfect backing singers sprung into action.

It was an energetic moment, but her concentration seemed to be focused on descending what looked like a pretty non-challenging staircase. Part of Carey’s charm is that if you’re thinking it, she’s thinking it – and she’ll probably vocalize it. “Before I tackle that staircase,” she’d say later in the set, “Does it bother you guys if I repeatedly take sips of tea?”

Within the first 15 minutes she managed to slip in most of her memeable words and one-liners: “You’re looking festive,” “We’re taking it moment by moment” and “bleakness.”

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Phoebe Sequino

For Mariah Carey fans, the question isn’t “can she sing?” but “how hard will she sing?” The opening numbers, like 1993’s Dreamlover and a mash-up of 2014 deep cut You Don’t Know What To Do and classic single Emotions, established that we’d get plenty of runs, ad-libs and airy whistle-register runs. Still, the audience often screamed loudest during the smokier low notes.

A soaring, gospel-y detour into Anytime You Need A Friend segued into a string of 90s house remixes that included the David Morales version of Fantasy, though the audience didn’t seem interested in dancing. When the band flipped the beat into the mid-tempo Bad Boy remix, Carey and the crowd took the energy up with a sing-a-long to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s iconic verse.

Now clad in a form-fitting black full-length with strips of colour-changing LED lights running down each side, she settled into a run of R&B songs including Always Be My Baby – and that ended with a cute cameo by her two kids – the new album’s title track and cheeky single GTFO. Fan favourite Eighth Grade allowed Carey to show off her double-time flows against the night’s most on-trend arrangement: soul-jazzy keys, muscular bass and skittery rhythm.

The show shifted into full camp mode for a mini-set of songs off her ill-fated (and Toronto-shot) 2001 star vehicle Glitter. The soundtrack hit number one on iTunes last year as part of a #Justice4Glitter social media push. “I watched the movie again last night,” she told the crowd. “It wasn’t that bad.”

Now in a sparkly red dress and matching boa, she did the ballad Never Too Far and dancey cuts Loverboy, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life and I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On as dancers whizzed around her on roller skaters. At one point she reached down to the front row to sign a vinyl copy of Glitter between verses and there was a slight moment of tension as she handed the pen back just in time to continue the song.

It was a small moment but emblematic of the whole night. Carey, the pro, moved the show along, hit marks and changed costumes, but seemed most engaged when she could interact with fans and with the band. She frequently dazzled vocally, her free hand accenting her melismatic runs with R&B sign language giving us plenty of Peak Mariah moments. But she’s not exactly a high-energy performer – and that’s not a bad thing.

During I Didn’t Meant To Turn You On, musical director Daniel Moore stepped out from behind the piano to do a funky keytar solo and, near the end of the song, Carey turned to face one of the singers and the two playfully locked into harmony. As much as I love costume changes, the show could’ve used more of these playful digressions from the studio versions – remixed or otherwise.

Given Carey is now performing in more intimate venues for a crowd heavy on die-hards – an even-looking mix of younger and older – behind an acclaimed new album, it seems reasonable she’d play a set that focuses on songs she hasn’t sang a million times and that gives her obviously capable band room to riff. It was her best sounding Toronto show in years.

With the Caution Tour, Carey seems to be cautiously moving into a new and promising career phase. 

@nowtoronto | @kevinritchie

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