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Music News & Reviews

Janet Jackson’s talent, message burn brightly at packed Fresno show

There was a moment during Janet Jackson’s breathtaking Save Mart Center show in which I feared for my life.

Jackson commanded the packed house –14,000 people? 15,000? – to jump along with her and her dancers. The concrete floor beneath my feet began to shake. I’ve seen 100-150 shows at this arena since it opened 16 years ago, and I’ve never felt it shake like that – not during Metallica, not during the Royal Rumble, not ever.

The feeling passed almost instantly. If we all go right now, while seeing something this magnificent, well – that’s not a bad way to go.

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For nearly two hours, Jackson electrified a crowd that was holding power lines while standing in water and begging for more.

I could recognize maybe three Janet Jackson songs before tonight, and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage. It was a visually stunning affair.

The choreography was the highlight, as the teasing pop hits of her last few decades allowed Jackson and her diverse dance crew to kill it, raise it from the dead and kill it once more. Her dancers came in all ages, shapes and identities. They were all fantastic, but each was given several moments to slay individually.

And slay they did – especially during a particularly epic rendition of “Rhythm Nation.”

I was also struck by the deep contrasts in mood and energy depicted on stage.

The concert opened with a stern set of images on two long white screens. It was unlike anything I’ve seen at a pop concert. The videos referenced racism in America – both during the Civil Rights Era and in the wake of the modern police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It covered global warming and condemned white supremacy. At one point, I believe I heard Robert Kennedy’s voice.

Jackson splashed a little real in with the pop throughout her show. One video interlude depicted the singer aging rapidly. During one song, her dancers performed clear scenes of domestic violence and drug use. By the end of that piece, Jackson was in tears.

The crowd was with her through it all. It wasn’t political – at least it didn’t feel that way to me. The scenes were simple reminders of the world we live in. Racism, injustice, drug abuse and violence exist. We should overcome them with love. It doesn’t all have to be rocket science. Now let’s dance some more.

Jackson split her show into two segments with an intermission.

The first was a white-hot hit blitz, with favorites like “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty Boys” and “All For You” condensed and mixed into more of a medley form that allowed for quick transitions and quicker dance moves.

The second was a slow burn, starting with a stripped-down me-and-my-audience vibe that eventually grew into the aforementioned “Rhythm Nation” banger.

Both parts were good, but the first was better.

Although Jackson at times leaned heavily on her backup singers and backing tracks, the pace made everyone feel like they were watching an award show performance. She crammed as much as she could into a few minutes, then stretched that into an hour.

Don’t misunderstand me about that leaning. Lots of performers, especially those who are dancing at full speed, rely on backing tracks and young, hungry background singers for vocal help. Jackson can and did sing. Her voice was solid at times, strong at others. Many of her ballads are sung in a pretty high key, and she performed them pretty well. I am just pointing out something that happened without judgment.

And taking a quick left turn from there, that woman had a high ponytail that had been touched by the angels.

This may seem weird coming from a heterosexual 29-year-old, but her hair was a sight to behold. It splashed violently during her dance moves but somehow managed to float gently behind her during the quieter moments.

Were there fans keeping it perfect? Was there a breeze in the arena? Was God brushing it slightly behind her? I may never know, but it was a key topic of discussion for all of us on the walk out of the arena.

This was a performance that Jackson should take pride in. She took a lot of crap – and even a lawsuit – after she opted to postpone much of her 2015-16 tour to have a baby. She’s back now, and judging by the thousands of serious fans I saw worshiping her mere existence Sunday night, she hasn’t missed a step.

The simple fact is this: Janet Jackson’s Save Mart Center show was about as good a show as you or I or anyone we know will see this year. Period.

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