For the most part, Janet Jackson’s Sunday night performance at the Erwin Center was a testament to the “Rhythm Nation” leader’s ability, even at 51, to dominate a dance floor. A seven-piece ensemble including two singers and a DJ backed her at the performance, but, other than Ms. Jackson herself, the real stars of the show were her dance team. The crew of five women and two men whipped it, flipped it and worked their bodies, keeping the club vibe live.
A-List Photos: Janet Jackson at the Erwin Center
The “State of the World Tour” opened on an somber note. Jackson entered to a video montage that called out war in Syria, starvation in Africa, the alarming number of recent police shootings of unarmed black people and the fight for equality of all. She used her 1989 track, “The Knowledge,” to underline the gravity of our current times.
But before the vibe could get too heavy, she shifted into dance party mode. She kicked into high gear with “Burnitup!” a 2015 collab with Missy Misdemeanor (giant video Missy stood in for the real thing), then she front-loaded the set with a string of her biggest hits. Jackson and her crew prowled the dance floor as streams of ’90s throwback, neon purple lights cut across arena while she hammered out old faves like”Nasty,” “Escapade,” “Control” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”
The Erwin Center was set up in a more intimate configuration than usual, with the stage placed close to the center and about a third of the arena dark and though there was a solid crowd, there were also plenty of seats still available. But what the crowd lacked in numbers, they made up for in enthusiasm. For the first 30 minutes or so of the show, almost everyone in the audience remained on their feet, working up a sweat. Jackson herself, worked it too. Though she let her dancers handle the most spectacular choreography, she was absolutely in the mix.
About 45 minutes into the show she took a brief interlude while her DJ spun tunes and hyped the crowd. When she returned, she sat on a stool center stage and worked through the more introspective side of her catalog, songs like “Where Are You Now,” “Twenty Fourplay” and “Come Back to Me.” Jackson was never a spectacular singer like some of her peers from the nineties, but she oozes sensuality and these songs highlighted her ability to vocally caress a melody line.
Her performance was tightly choreographed and she only engaged in minimal stage banter, but the most moving part of the performance was a powerful rendition of “What About.” It opened with a video closeup of Jackson’s face. Looking distraught, she smeared her lipstick across her cheeks, over her eyes, until her face looked battered and bruised.
“Don’t ever let anyone try to control you, manipulate you or abuse you,” she said as the song began. Then her dancers, painfully and poignantly told the story of an abusive relationship while Jackson spat out the lyrics “What about the times you hit my face? What about the times you kept on when I said, ‘No more please’?”
At the end of the song, she sobbed while she caught her breath. “This is me,” she said through the tears.
She closed the show with “Rhythm Nation,” reminding us once more why her music continues to bump on dance floors around the world for decades after it drops.
The crowd went wild as she left the stage cheering fanatically until she came back for a final set of new songs from her . She closed the night by shouting out her love to Austin, and as the crowd screamed passionately, it was clear the love went both ways.