“They say this song brought me back to life … [but] I don’t know where I was before,” said an incredulous Mariah Carey toward the tail end of the opening night of her residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace on Wednesday night.
The pop diva was introducing her 2005 single, “We Belong Together,” the behemoth hit that gave new life to a career that was still struggling to overcome the nuclear flop that was “Glitter” (which, looking back, really wasn’t as bad as we all thought).
But Carey’s refusal to embrace the comeback kid title – back then, or on Wednesday – is confounding yet understandable when taking in Wednesday’s show.
She was, after all, introducing the 16th tune in a concert stocked by only her No. 1 hits. It was also a not-so-subtle reminder that no other artist breathing air could pull off what she had: A two-hour show curated from songs that hit the top of the pop charts.
At 45, Carey stands only behind the Beatles as the artist with the most No. 1s, and on Wednesday night, she worked hard to remind fans of that feat and not the avalanche of career obstacles she's encountered in recent years – lukewarm albums, heavily scrutinized live showings and professional and personal changes (new management, a divorce) – that have made fans wonder if she can ever recapture past glories.
Here are five things we learned from Carey’s opening night on Wednesday:
1. The concept is surprisingly simple. “I figured I’d do this chronologically,” Carey said after starting the night with power ballad “Vision of Love” – even sporting a wig as a throwback to her big '90s curls – before going through each No. 1 all the way through her new single, “Infinity” – thus the show title, “Mariah #1 to Infinity.”
2. Carey isn’t much of a revisionist. The singer and her band didn’t take many liberties to stretch songs beyond their recognizable sonics, which might have been a risky (though welcomed) move for a Vegas spectacle, where a chunk of the audience is expecting to hear the song how they remembered it on the radio. There were a few exceptions, though: she stripped down inspirational ballad “Thank God I Found You” into an understated piano number, boosted early '90s new-jack swing jam “Someday” with a bit of TLC’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and fit clips of Biggie's "Juicy" into the sparkling “Dreamlover.”
3. Vegas + Mariah = a perfect match. Carey has long perfected glitz and glamour. Her concerts are always over-the-top affairs, with the star doing everything from having her makeup or costumes altered onstage to stopping for a sip of champagne. And with Vegas being the land of gratuitous pizazz, Carey was right at home.
Her production appeared minimal, with her band in all-white, playing all-white instruments, and little visuals outside of past music videos and photo montages. But the show also included plenty of moments that could really only be pulled off in Vegas. Take the giant gaudy butterfly façade that opened and closed the stage; or props like a pink convertible, a Jet Ski, a plush bed fit for at least five queens -- all of which carried the singer at one point. Or the point when she had a team of oh-so-adorable kids come out and dance as if they were re-creating a peppy holiday commercial for Target. Not all of it worked, though, like the out-of-place solo from a drummer in a strange, circular apparatus that appeared to be a contraption borrowed from the Blue Man Group.
4. The focus is strictly on the hits. With 18 chart-toppers there is little room for other material, the exception being her new single “Infinity.” Here’s hoping that as the show progresses Carey makes time to work in favorites like “Without You,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Butterfly” or “Shake It Off.” And if Carey is completely married to the concept, and it’s certainly one that works, she should consider taking the audience behind the makings of the songs.
5. Carey’s voice is intact – mostly. Let’s face it, many have wondered if the pop star still has the vocal chops to pull off a residency. Carey’s live offerings, especially of late, have been incredibly shaky. Her vocal performances on a recent Asian leg of her tour were heavily scrutinized and her showing on the “Christmas in Rockefeller Center” special went viral for all the wrong reasons. Standing in line for will call, one attendant could be heard multiple times assuring ticket buyers that Carey sounded fantastic during a preview earlier in the week.
On opening night, Carey worked tirelessly to avoid all the heavy scrutiny that has followed her recently – though the strict no-recording policy, which approximately no one obeyed, seemed to have been instituted as a safety net. Those reservations came with a price, though. At times Carey seemed nervous, even cautious, to attempt the glass shattering octaves, whistles and melisma acrobatics that established her as one of the most untouchable voices in pop.
Although she often skimped on the heavy lifting, mostly on up-tempos like “Honey,” “Fantasy” and “Heartbreaker,” where she appeared to blend into a backing track, it made room for plenty of knockout moments during the ballads she's best known for – including a breathtaking double header of her last chart-toppers, “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us."