Friday, July 1, 2011

Janet live: A tale of two halves

When you label your tour "Up Close And Personal", you're creating certain expectations. When you're the notoriously guarded Janet Jackson, there's an added frisson. We know next to nothing about her divorces, her dalliances with lesbianism, her relationship with Michael, the fall-out of her Superbowl... erm, fallout.

Is this tour the point where she finally bares her soul?

In a word: No.

What we get is a fairly standard Janet Jackson show on a miniscule budget. The latter point isn't necessarily a criticism. In an era where Madonna, Gaga and Britney have turned pop concerts into million dollar circus shows, it's refreshing to see an artist of Janet's stature concentrate on the songs. There are no expensive video interludes, no pyrotechnics, no props to distract you from the performance. At times, Janet even sings live.

Where it starts to unravel is the decision to play each and every one of Janet's "35 number one hits*". This means one thing: Medleys.

Oh God, I hate medleys. They would expose a lack of stylistic variety in David Bowie's back-catalogue, never mind an artist so one-note as Janet. And, in aiming to please everyone, medleys manage to disappoint on every level. I'd rather not hear Control at all than a brisk, dismissive 30 seconds that miss out the best bit.

So a seven-track megamix is not an auspicious beginning to the show. Janet fast-forwards through hits like What Have You Done for Me Lately and The Pleasure Principle as if they were an irritating "you wouldn't steal a handbag" advert at the start of a DVD.

Things settle down for Miss You Much - a stone-cold future funk classic from the Rhythm Nation era. Janet manages to stick with the song right through to the bitter end, even breaking out the original dance routine, looking every bit as powerful as she did 22 years ago.

Nasty folllows, the song's jagged punch diminished slightly by the fact the concert opened with a full-length screening of the video, which Janet had "dedicated to London" (London was visibly moved by this gesture, especially because the video had been squeezed onto a 16:9 screen, cutting off everyone's head in the process).

But just as the party gets going, we are forced to sit through an inexplicable five-minute showreel of Janet's "acting highlights". This includes, I kid you not, a scene where an 11-year-old Jackson is threatened with a red hot electric iron. It doesn't exactly create a party atmosphere.

When the interval rolls around, a mere 40 minutes into the show, I seriously consider leaving on the next bus. Janet seems disconnected, mechanical, inattentive. But a quick tally of the songs she has left to perform convince me to stick it out... And, boy, am I glad that I do.

Bounding back on to the stage like a kangaroo, Janet has apparently downed two pints of stimulating caffeine beverage. Dressed down in black jeans and a vest top, she giggles at her dancers' antics, improvises around the choreography and throws smouldering looks into the (wildly diverse) crowd.

As predicted, the best tunes have been held back for this segment. It's often overlooked in the UK, but songs like Rhythm Nation and That's The Way Love Goes defined modern R&B. Without them, there'd have been no Destiny's Child, no TLC, no Rihanna. And, judging by the endearingly terrible dancing in the aisles, age has not diminished their irresistible appeal.

By the time the encore comes around, the promise of getting "up close and personal" is finally fulfilled. During Together Again, a series of still images flash up on the video screens. Moving chronologically from black and white polaroids to expensive studio shots, each is a photo of Janet sat next to her older brother Michael. As they appear, Janet stretches out her arms and sings under her breath: "What I'd give just to hold you close... As on earth, in heaven we will be together". It's a moment so unexpectedly loaded with emotion that it knocks a few of us back into our seats.

Janet plays the Royal Albert Hall again on Saturday and Sunday. Despite my reservations about the first half, I'd recommend getting a ticket, if only to see a member of pop royalty stripped of the production values that mask other performers' inadequacies. Janet has enough charisma, athleticism and experience to pull it off... And some of the best tunes in the catalogue to boot.


Act One
The Pleasure Principle
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
You Want This
Miss You Much
Come Back to Me
Let's Wait Awhile

Video Interlude
Rope Burn
Any Time, Any Place
Got 'Til It's Gone
Go Deep (Missy remix)
What's It Gonna Be? (with Busta Rhymes)

Act Two
Doesn't Really Matter
Love Will Never Do (Without You)
When I Think of You
All for You
That's the Way Love Goes
Rhythm Nation

Together Again

* There is some creative accounting at work here - Feedback, for example, reached number one in the esoteric realms of the 'Billboard hot dance 100'

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