Lionel Richie and Mariah Carey Offer Sweet-Sounding Escapism at New York's MSG

Lionel Richie performs at Madison Square Garden
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Lionel Richie performs at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 19, 2017 in New York City.

In moments of political and cultural upheaval, a few things remain constant. Luckily for the audience at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday night (Aug. 19) thrones, glitter, disco balls, and danceable R&B/pop are among them.

With those tools in hand, Lionel Richie and Mariah Carey brought an effective, relatively uncontrived dose of full-schmaltz escapism to the storied arena where they’ve both been playing for decades -- during the show, Richie recalled the Commodores opening for the Jackson 5 at MSG during the summer of '71. Forty-six years later (!) his growling “Yow” (think “Brick House”) has only gotten more emphatic, as surely as Carey’s list of hits has runneth over.

That is the trouble with seeing Mariah Carey: even if you’re not a member of the #Lambily, she simply has too many hits to fit into one set (still the most Hot 100 No. 1s -- 18 -- of any solo artist, ever) and thus some of your favorite Mariah tunes are inevitably going to get left out.

In this abbreviated (yes, 13 songs is abbreviated when your catalog includes 14 studio albums) set, Carey eschewed “Emotions,” “Fantasy,” and even her latest single (the underrated “I Don’t,” featuring YG) for relatively obscure E=MC² tracks “Heat” and “I’m That Chick” -- song selection for the true fans.

It seemed her mission was to prove to any doubters that she still -- to paraphrase a meme -- has the range. Carey’s legendary whistle register came out during the second full song, a pitch-perfect rendition of the Missy Elliott/Da Brat remix of “Heartbreaker” that flowed into the original. Mariah checked the requisite diva boxes, getting carried around by strapping lads and an onstage touch-up while seated on a gilded throne (no, it was not a chair -- it was a throne). The genre-defining singer’s ballad bona fides, never in question, were on display via  “One Sweet Day” (during which she wiped away a single tear), “My All,” “Vision of Love,” “We Belong Together,” and “Hero.”

It was a typically extraordinary showing -- when you’re Mariah, extraordinary is standard -- but it left questions about how the singer will cement her sometimes-overwhelming legacy in the years to come. Right now, her live show is in an in-between space: big enough to recall her larger-than-life heyday, but occasionally so huge-sounding that the nuances of Carey’s pop-history-shaping songwriting and vocal technique get lost in the fray. Scale back the way-too-loud bass drum, layers of synths and back-up singers, and yes, the backing vocal track, and her voice and songs still easily fill an arena (and probably a stadium).

Carey shouldn’t have to prove anything at this point, to her fans or to the (delusional) skeptics -- instead, she should be relishing in her oeuvre and having fun flexing on all her lesser imitators. Mariah unplugged would, even in 2017, be a game changer.

Lionel Richie, whose aesthetic is considerably more single-minded, had an easier task-- bring the audience back 30 years (or 40, depending on if you prefer the Commodores or Richie’s solo work). Opening with “Easy,” clad in a silver trimmed blazer (he’d switch to red-lined tails halfway through), Richie ran through his hits (as the tour title, “All the Hits,” would suggest) with much more growling and smirking than one would expect from someone who’s almost 70 (one joke about not wanting to suck on a straw onstage was... interesting).

The piano was raised, the piano was lowered, a man wearing a vest did many harmonica solos, and the bassist sported a mesh tank top. Richie’s banter was about the man at the meet and greet who told him about having sex to his songs, not about the fact that he’s currently debating attending the Kennedy Center Honors in protest of President Trump, where he’s slated to be recognized this December -- and who can blame him. Even a late-set rendition of “We Are The World” managed to come off as apolitical, though no one needed to tell the crowd to get their cell phone flashlights in the air.

Instead, the night’s moment of solidarity came from another era’s “One Dance,” “All Night Long”—as the song itself puts it, “everyone dancing their troubles away.”

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