From all outward appearances, Celine Dion is unmarred by time. Her eyes — beaming at the near-capacity audience from one of several enormous video screens — sparkle as ever. Her wide, white smile beams munificently at all who gaze upon it. Her muscular arms gesticulate freely, piercing the air to emphasize a moment.
But lean in and listen closely, and the weight of years becomes vivid. This is not to say that Celine Dion’s voice has deteriorated — far, far from it — but rather, like an iron fist in a velvet glove, has become lightly oxidized and slightly tattered by the seasons of life through which she passed. Her voice — her dazzling, gravity-defying, three-octave voice — has settled into something deeper, richer and truer.
Monday night at American Airlines Center, Dion took the stage in Dallas for the first time in 11 years. She’s touring behind Courage, her 12th English language studio album, released last year.
“That is way too long,” Dion said of her absence, not long after taking the stage. “You know what — I gotta look into that and find out what happened.”
Over the course of two hours, the 51-year-old Canadian pop diva put on a clinic for a near-capacity audience, showcasing the sort of superstar that is in woefully short supply in pop music these days. By turns vulnerable and playful, goofy and sincere, Dion worked through several of the prodigious peaks of her Grammy-gilded catalog.
Backed by a crisp, 17-member band, including a string quartet and a pair of drummers, on a stage that was stacked from floor to rafters with video screens and framed with lights that rarely stayed still for long, Dion opened with the swooping “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” the sort of slow-burn pop power ballad that hasn’t been in fashion since the early days of the Clinton administration.
Dion didn’t dabble much in Courage — just a couple songs here and there — and instead gave the fans what they’d piled into the arena to hear: the hits. She reeled off plenty, from “That’s the Way It Is” and “If You Asked Me To” to “To Love You More” and “Because You Loved Me.” (And, yes, “My Heart Will Go On” made an appearance as well, to open the encore.)
Had she so chosen, Dion could have used her howitzer of a voice to lay waste to the room — no pop star ever went broke belting notes that can be heard three states over — but instead, she demonstrated the value of restraint, filling the room with sound.
Over the course of her nearly four-decade career, Dion has learned how to wield her multi-octave instrument in ways that call attention not only to the words she sings, but also how she sings them.
This approach reached its apex early, as Dion worked through her platinum 1993 single “The Power of Love.” The already-indelible song slowly accumulated further emotional textures from the losses suffered in the years since the song’s initial release — Dion’s mother, Therese, passed away on Jan. 17, a heartbreakingly fresh wound — and as it built to its climactic chorus (“’Cause I’m your lady …”), the impact was breathtaking.
The sound of hope and hurt and resolve and acceptance lay in the space between the glory notes; the look in Dion’s eyes was enough to elicit cheers and sobs. The heaviness of life reinforced the foundation for a glorious pop confection.
Time and again Monday night, Dion made superstardom seem as easy as tying one’s shoe — the slightly goofy, immensely talented girl next door with a voice that is itself a work of art. If there are any complaints to be levied, it’s that the two-hour show could’ve easily fit in a 90-minute container. More than once, Dion felt as though she was vamping a bit to pad things out.
Still, who can really begrudge Dion the chance to cut loose a bit with her adoring fans? (“Now I feel like I’m a part of the family!” Dion exclaimed, as a fan tossed a white cowboy hat onto the stage for her to try on. “I’m just glad it was not a pair of pants.”)
In a time when so much of the world can be toxic and trying, Celine Dion’s performance felt like a two-hour reprieve from all that ails us, a soft, warm and welcoming embrace.
“Throughout my entire career, all of you have given me so much courage, especially during my difficult moments,” Dion said late in the show. “I appreciate this more than you’ll ever know.”
So, while the concert wasn’t an escape, exactly — the Iowa caucuses were melting down in real time as she sang — for a time, everyone gathered in the room could feel united, unbruised by what lay outside the arena doors, lost in the sparkle of a peerless pop queen.
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