Two musical icons filled up American Airlines Center on Thursday night as Lionel Richie took the stage to a nearly packed house, with Mariah Carey opening. But only one brought the chops to back up the fame.
Carey was as divalicious as her reputation promises, strutting tentatively around the stage in thigh-baring evening gowns and giant platform Louboutin stiletto heels. She was subdued and cautious throughout her performance — the small group of portable fans stationed around the perimeter of the stage was responsible for most of the movement happening up there, making her long locks and floor-length gown flutter in the breeze.
As Carey sang, the screen behind her often played the accompanying music videos from her early days, and the vivaciousness of young Carey workin’ it on the big screen was a direct contrast to her stage presence. It was the most exciting part of her performance as well.
It was obvious the audience was there mostly for Richie. During Carey’s set, attendance was thin, and the crowd was as mellow as the singer herself; a small handful barely got out of their seats to dance to her old hits.
But during ballads like “My All” from her 1997 album, Butterfly, Carey proved why she rose to the top of the game. She might not be as physically nimble as she was 20 years ago, but her voice was at its best during the song. She didn't sing powerfully, but her performance was on key and true to each note, in contrast to some of her other songs. To borrow a term from her American Idol co-judge Randy Jackson, she was a little pitchy.
When Carey hit the high note on “Don’t Forget About Us” from her 2005 album, The Emancipation of Mimi, the crowd cheered and applauded, giving Carey the most praise she’d earned all night.
Just announcing the song “One Sweet Day” — one she wrote with Boyz II Men — got huge cheers. Who knew there were so many Boyz II Men fans in the crowd? Carey’s keyboardist and one of her three backup singers lent strong male vocals.
Noticeably absent from Carey’s set were iconic Mariah hits and personal favorites “Fantasy," from her 1995 album, Daydream, and “Honey,” a skillful and fun duet with P. Diddy from Butterfly.
Also disappointing: “Hearbreaker,” her duet with Jay-Z from 1999’s Rainbow, was remixed and desperately shortened, cutting out Hova’s rap solo and leaving the audience wanting more.
Carey finished the set with a valiant rendition of “Hero.” Although she was pitchy at some points, it gave diehard fans a finale worth sticking around and braving longer bathroom lines for.
Once Lionel, pronounced Ly-NEL for the purpose of this show (we’ll get to that later), took the stage, it was obvious why the audience was there. Bored-looking patrons immediately jumped to their feet when he appeared.
Why was their enthusiasm surprising? For those who've never seen Richie live, it’s easy to underestimate him. But if anyone in the arena wasn’t already a fan, seeing Ly-NEL do his thang for two hours is enough to convince him or her otherwise.
The veteran showman regaled the audience with powerful vocals, personality, wit and charm. Plenty of performers have the aforementioned, but he has that special sauce — everything you’d hope for in a world-class performer plus the X factor — sincerity, a sparkle in his eye and the ability to connect with his audience, proving why he’s earned his icon status and the army of awards listed on his website.
If Carey was the wet blanket of the concert, Richie more than made up for it as the gregarious social chair. He delighted the crowd with anecdotes that spiced up his already zesty selection of hits.
“I knew when I landed where I was," Richie said. "I travel all over the world. My name in France is Leon; in Italy, it’s Leonello. I get to Dallas, Texas, and get off the plane and the brother says, ‘Welcome home, Ly-NEL,’ and then he got my last name wrong. too. He said ‘That’s Ly-NEL Richards.’”
The crowd went wild with laughter and for the rest of the evening called him “Ly-NEL” — shouting praise like “We love you, Ly-NEL!”
In another Dallas anecdote, Richie said a man stopped him backstage and said, “Lionel, I've made love to you many times,” to which the crowd responded with uproarious laughter.
“I said, ‘That’s a damn lie!’ What made matters worse, his wife or girlfriend said ‘Oh, I was there’" Richie said. "Now I don’t know what’s going on in Texas, but it scared me for a moment. Then I realized I was there in the bedroom. ... That doesn't sound right either, does it? Let me tell you the end of the story — their favorite song is 'Stuck on You.'"
Whether that actually happened doesn’t matter. It achieved the goal: the crowd was eating out of his hands, laughing at all the right moments. Richie is the formidable king of love ballads. Who knew he also has a foothold in comedy?
The arena was on its feet and dancing during his peppy songs. His guitar player, saxophonist and bass player hopped, skipped and jumped the length of the stage while deftly playing their instruments. Often one or more would play fight and shove Richie, who jokingly responded with a chokehold.
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All of this fun was a skillful counterbalance to Richie’s ballad-heavy discography, slower tunes he expertly peppered throughout the performance. For these, which included “Three Times a Lady” and “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” he sat regally at his spotlit piano, eyes twinkling as he sang to the crowd.
Couples took advantage of love songs like “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” from when Richie was with the Commodores. Many of them slow danced in the aisles without any prompting. He joked about his baby-making hits throughout the set, pointing out one couple in the front whom he told to get a room.
Another crowd favorite was the Commodores’ “Brick House.” Richie said he had the pleasure of judging Miss Brickhouse competitions when he was in his 20s, and he pointed out all of the brick houses he spotted dancing in the audience, which seemed like everyone. At this point, everyone was grooving to this old-school funk jam.
After a two-hour set, Richie ended the night appropriately with “All Night Long.” Maybe it was more of a suggestion, but the crowd showed no signs of wanting to leave or slowing down after Richie’s party was over. If they took his advice, as he mentioned all the legions of couples have before them, they grabbed that room to celebrate the rest of the night.