The last time Mariah Carey put her high heels on Australian soil, she was promoting a little album called Butterfly. That was back in 1998, when Mimi ruled the charts and airwaves with an iron fist. While her star still shines as bright as ever, the future American Idol judge has spent the last few years concentrating on family rather than chasing hits. Not that Australia seems to have noticed. Despite the 15-year leave of absence, MC’s show at Sydney’s All Phones Arena sold out in four minutes. Other dates were subsequently added, and the pop legend suddenly found herself on a mini-tour instead of the originally-intended sunny vacation.
I’ve been following Mimi’s Aussie adventure as part of the press junket since it began on New Year’s Day with an intimate show on the Gold Coast (a resort town in Queensland, for you non-Aussies). What seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the start of 2013, and Mariah’s long-anticipated return, turned out to be something of a misfire. The gorgeous 42-year-old sounded incredible — hitting notes not heard since her ’90s hey-day — but the show was plagued by technical issues. There was a problem with the microphone in MC’s ear and she let everyone know about it. At every available opportunity.
At first, the Lamb Whisperer’s antics were hilarious and warmly embraced by the crowd. But by the time she started freestyling about not being able to hear and left the stage mid-song due to obvious frustration, it started to wear a bit thin. There were many wonderful moments — her festive medley and our unexpected introduction to Dem Babies stand out as highlights. But the quips about lighting, ill-fitting costumes and sore feet eventually took their toll. It didn’t help that several songs were cut from the set list due to the sound malfunction. As one punter diplomatically put it: “At least she was better than Whitney” — a reference to Nippy’s disastrous 2010 Australian tour. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Maybe jet lag or the tiny venue burst Mariah’s bubble on the Gold Coast, because a completely different woman wowed Sydney last night. Pop’s Christmas Queen exuded happiness and calm, interacting with the audience like the members were old friends, and only occasionally playing up to her diva reputation with a comedic demand. There were exciting additions to the set list. She even looked different, moving around the much-bigger stage with complete ease and confidence. It was like mid-’90s Mariah stepped out of a time machine to reclaim her live performance throne.
After Nick Cannon warmed up the crowd with a DJ set that included PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” his wife emerged in a skin-tight, silver mini-dress, singing “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme).” Mimi set the bar high with a pitch-perfect rendition. and was visibly touched by the response she received from the adoring sold-out crowd. She then dusted off a couple of big hits, shimmying to 2008 chart-topper “Touch My Body” and Emancipation Of Mimi mega-hit “Shake It Off.” Her dancers did most of the moving, but all eyes were on Nicki Minaj’s nemesis as she posed sexily and generally put on a mid-tempo R&B master class.
With the crowd now eating out of her be-jewelled hand, Mariah dialed it back a notch. Her iconic chaise-lounge appeared and she rested her diamante-covered heels while belting out a spine-tingling rendition of enduring fan favorite “My All.” Of course, it eventually morphed into a terrible dance remix, but that beautiful ballad was an absolute highlight. If you needed proof that Mariah meant business last night, you got it when she emerged from a costume change — another plunging ensemble that displayed the timeless diva’s ample assets — to sing 1991 classic “Emotions.” That particular number was missing from the Gold Coast set list, which is a shame, because hearing it live is a thing of great beauty. Mimi hit all the high notes and even unleashed her trademark dog whistle. There might be some local pooches with minor hearing loss this today, but fans couldn’t get enough of the superstar’s vocal gymnastics.
Next stop on the nostalgic trip down memory lane was “Always Be My Baby,” followed by Carey’s 1992 MTV Unplugged cover of The Jackson 5’ “I’ll Be There.” It was only appropriate that Mariah invited Trey Lorenz (her original duet partner) to join her. Last night’s rendition was every bit as good as their ’92 version. After bringing the crowd to their feet with an incredible note, the beaming pop goddess departed for another costume change while Trey entertained the braying Lambs with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” He then introduced the band and dancers. While Mariah is a delightful performer, this was the only part of the evening that dragged and felt poorly managed. By the time MC came back, 15 minutes had elapsed — a substantial amount in a 90-minute concert.
At least she returned with a bang. “Obsessed” sounded brilliant live and, visually, Mariah camped it up with sexy poses and hair flicks. She was clearly in fine spirits when she tottered to the front of the stage in skyscraper heels to belt out a medley of vintage hits — “Can’t Let Go” and “Love Takes Time” (both absent from the Gold Coast show) — before breaking into “Don’t Forget About Us.” She even thanked the crowd for making the song a #1 hit in Australia seven years ago, despite the fact that, um, it only reached #12. Another surprise addition to the set list was “It’s Like That,” her lead Emancipation Of Mimi lead single.
Finally it was time for The Butler actress to have a good chat with the crowd. Mariah brought out an adorable 6-year-old from Melbourne, also called Mariah. She praised the girl’s “ensemble” and gave her a Santa’s hat with the word LAMB written on it. Mimi then retreated to her trusty chaise-lounge to belt out Butterfly ballad “Close My Eyes,” complete with a video collage of childhood photos. It was a beautiful moment that reminded fans how strong the diva’s back catalog is. She can sing a 15-year-old album track and still leave the crowd spellbound.
As the show slowly reached its upbeat conclusion, Mariah minced on stage with a jar of Vegemite (Australia’s favorite sandwich spread). Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste, and I’m not entirely sure if the regular Jermaine Dupri collaborator was joking when she quipped: “If someone doesn’t bring me a glass of champagne [to wash away the taste] in 1.5 seconds, you’re all fired!”
After surviving a brush with the local cuisine, Mimi soldiered on with a soaring rendition of “Hero,” belting out her signature tune with confidence and making it a magical moment for the crowd. Fans were still coming to terms with it when MC dashed off-stage and returned for the encore with a glass of bubbles. She closed the set with “We Belong Together,” showing off her full range and technical skill.
After the show, I ducked backstage and waited for Mariah to return to her dressing room. A couple of minutes later she trotted past with a gaggle of security guards and was greeted by the loud applause of crew, guests, family and media. She turned around, waved and beamed the million-dollar smile of someone who knows they just nailed it before continuing on her merry way. What a difference two nights can make.
Catch more of Mike Wass‘ music banter on his blog Pop Trash Addicts.