Now this isn’t the type of gig you usually see reviewed on these pages, and it’s not really the type of thing I spend my Sunday nights at. But when the opportunity to see two of the all time RnB titans together on the same night came up, I jumped at the chance. Dubbed ‘The King and Queen of Hearts’ tour, Mary J Blige (MJB for ease) and Maxwell have been traveling the world together bringing 20 years of immaculate floor fillers and slow jams to crowds across the globe. But I’m not here for some kind of retro thrills; these two are still a relevant force in music. MJB has been writing and recording with Disclosure and Jimmy Napes (of Sam Smith writing fame), and at 43, Maxwell has just released his best and most critically lauded album to date, the superb blackSUMMERnights.

Making my way into the arena with the dolled up Sunday night masses, I’m shocked to see how empty the place is. The entire top tier is closed, and most of the back of the lower tier is swathed in black cloth too. The areas that are open are hardly full, and it saddens me a bit; maybe these two aren’t so relevant after all? The crowd is pretty much all over 40, and this worries me a bit; maybe this is a retro tour that will render anything the pair have done recently obsolete?

To be honest, I’m here to see Maxwell, with MJB a bit of a curiosity to me, and it’s MJB who is up first. It takes all of 30 seconds  for her to win me over, as a huge white curtain drops to reveal MJB, resplendent in a military coat and sunglasses, banging out the classic ‘Love Yourself’; I’m fully onboard. She continues to reel off the hits one after the other, almost in a MJB best of medley, with ‘Love Is All We Need’, ‘Real Love’ and ‘Be Happy’ all deployed to a pumped up crowd.

Two seconds of Googling will tell you that MJB is going through a messy divorce, and she uses this in the second half of her set to up the intensity somewhat. After an extended monologue in which she extolls the virtues of female empowerment to much cheering and applause (and in doing so winning over all the men in the crowd too – it’s impassioned and authentic, a million miles away from Taylor Swift and the like), she starts the heartbreak section, with ‘Good Woman Down’ and ‘Not Gon’ Cry’ providing particular highlights. MJB’s voice might not be quite what it was in it’s 90s heyday, but it’s still pretty damn spectacular, and she’s not afraid to let it crack either. ‘No More Drama’ is perhaps one of the most intense performances of a song I’ve ever seen, MJB ending up banging her fists on the floor as she almost screams ‘no more pain!’, it’s a force to be reckoned with. She finishes on the upbeat hit ‘Family Affair’, which could still be on the radio today, so modern sounding as it is. Sure, MJB isn’t going to worry Beyonce and Rihanna with her dancing and stage craft (it’s decidedly old school), but this was a timely reminder of just how imperial she was for a while in the late 90s and early 00s.

After a length break (don’t they realise it’s a Sunday night?!), Maxwell enters the stage to much mid-aged delight. Dressed in a slick black suit and the seemingly obligatory sunglasses, he’s straight into his early classic ‘Dancewitme’ (yes, he has an annoying way of spelling things). It’s an absolute pleasure to hear his voice live, one of the best voices in modern RnB, and it’s flawless. What isn’t flawless though, is this show. After MJB’s bombast and emotion, I was expecting Maxwell to bring a seedier, club vibe to proceedings, but he doesn’t at all. What follows is an hour or so of pretty cheesy RnB performance that’s more about Maxwell and the laydeez than it is about anything else. I wanted him to wow us with his new album, show just how relevant he still is, but he comes across as a throwback, an old skool RnB star who keeps saying ‘Let’s go back to 1996’ and it’s all a bit disheartening. So much for expectations; I’d definitely go and see MJB again, and I’ve been hammering her back catalogue since, but I’d swerve Maxwell, which is a mighty shame considering how good his records are. Sometimes throw back is great; other times it just highlights how it’s good to look forward once in a while.

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