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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Live Review: Janet Jackson Shows the Kids How It's Done at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

Posted By on Thu, Oct 15, 2015 at 11:30 AM

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Janet Jackson
Oct. 13, 2015
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium 

“Gimme a beat!,” Janet Jackson commands, as her eight-piece band rips into the minimal, steely, yet relentless groove of 1989’s “Nasty.” With an army of nine backup dancers in tow, the pop legend shows no signs of slowing down at 49, delivering a physically demanding spectacle worthy of a star half her age. Yet, amidst the breakneck pace and daring athleticism, Ms. Janet’s presence radiates an effortless sense of grace and serenity that only decades of hard-earned icon status can achieve.

As the title of her newly released seventh LP might suggest, and as Tuesday night’s sold-out appearance at Bill Graham Civic Amphitheater confirmed, the late King of Pop’s little sister is as Unbreakable as they come.

A lot has changed in the seven years since Jackson last unleashed an album upon the world, not to mention the sudden loss of Michael in 2009. Janet’s return to the industry finds her navigating a new world of R&B, in which records from Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE to FKA twigs’ self-titled LP have nearly closed the previously gaping divide between the pop mainstream and the taste-making elite. The blogosphere and the Billboard Top 100 are finding more common ground than ever before, and Janet feels right at home in this new musical democracy. 
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Unbreakable is Janet’s first recorded statement since the millennial class of Miguel, Tinashe, and the Weeknd began revisiting (and by extension, canonizing) the R&B and new jack swing of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. As a result, Janet’s image has only deepened in its mystique and appeal. While her last decade was defined by the celebrity pettiness of fighting a stupid nip-slip scandal, and punctuated by three LPs (All For You, Damita Jo, Discipline) that largely failed to make a splash during a transitional period for R&B, the 2010s have found Janet's body of work speaking for itself, with imitators practically lining up to glorify her musical contributions. From the angular textures of Rhythm Nation 1814, to the rich layering of The Velvet Rope, and from her unapologetic, hedonistic sexuality to her altruistic concern for social justice, Janet’s influence can be found all over the 2k15 R&B landscape. 
Janet’s seventh LP seizes upon her growing influence. Between its central theme of loyalty to the fanbase, its production from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – the team behind nearly all of Janet’s most lasting work — and a newfound sense of purpose following a seven-year hiatus, Unbreakable is arguably Jackson’s most vital statement in over two decades, since the release of janet. in 1993.

Related: (Slideshow) Janet Jackson at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

The seductive throb of “No Sleeep,” the trance-y propulsion of “Shoulda Known Better,” and the righteously sunny groove of “Unbreakable,” in particular, held their own within the career retrospective hit-parade of Tuesday night’s show. Considering how much ground Janet's mammoth 32-song setlist covered, this is no small compliment.

Although her 90-minute set felt rushed and overstuffed at times, and could’ve benefited from taking more time to settle into its grooves, Janet, her robust eight-piece band, and her tightly choreographed team of dancers, built a giddy, kinetic sense of energy that electrified the room. Full-length renditions of songs were mostly scrapped, in favor of condensed versions: colliding into one another with little to no regard for breathing room, and recalling the hard-hitting immediacy of Daft Punk’s Alive 2007.

After hyping the crowd with Unbreakable’s “BURNITUP!” and upping the ante with “Nasty,” Jackson & Co. turned down the heat just a bit, coasting on the feel-good grooves of Rhythm Nation's “Miss You Much” and “Alright,” resulting in two early highlights of the evening. Following a stretch of tracks that leaned heavily on the jagged quirks of Control, most memorably “The Pleasure Principle,” Janet sidelined her backup dancers, taking a seat center-stage and going deep into slow-jam territory. While “Again” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” were predictably well received, “Come Back to Me” was the clear standout of the six-song, slow-jam-a-thon, performed with conviction, and hitting an especially poignant atmosphere.

Picking up the pace once again, with the heady, lusty groove of “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Janet tore into the final stretch of the night, and possibly the strongest. “Black Cat” was especially fun, with Janet bringing her guitarist and bassist to the front of the stage, for the one song in her catalog approaching hair-metal theatrics. “If” raised the stakes even higher, with Janet’s dancers and rhythm section doing full justice to the hardest, dirtiest groove in her repertoire.

“Rhythm Nation” scrapped the smooth, nuanced choreography of most of the evening’s dance moves, opting for the harsh, rigid, borderline-fascist dance routines of Janet’s late-‘80s music videos. With a few surprises thrown in – namely, her collaborations with Luther Vandross (“The Best Things in Life are Free”) and her late brother (“Scream”) – the show’s final half-hour played to many of Janet’s musical and performative strengths, replicating the first segment’s restless energy, but with stronger, more consistent material, and steadier pacing.

After over an hour of technical, physical performance which was all business, with very little in the way of stage banter or audience pandering, Janet’s stamina was something to behold. Her seemingly effortless ability to keep up with the twenty-somethings in her dance crew, while maintaining a high vocal standard – her pipes have aged gracefully, for the record – and world-class grace under pressure, was astounding.

There’s something almost old-fashioned about experiencing such a highly theatrical performance by a touring musician in 2015. But in an age where seemingly every other electronic musician is co-opting and reevaluating the R&B era of Jackson's prime, it’s a total joy to have Ms. Janet back on the road, triumphantly showing the kids how it’s done.


Miss You Much
You Want This
What Have You Done for Me Lately
The Pleasure Principle
When I Think of You
All for You
All Nite (Don’t Stop)
After You Fall
Come Back to Me
Let’s Wait Awhile
I Get Lonely
Any Time, Any Place
No Sleeep
Got ’til It’s Gone
That’s the Way Love Goes
Together Again
The Best Things in Life Are Free
Black Cat
Rhythm Nation
Shoulda Known Better
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