You need a big voice to fill a big concert hall on its big opening night, which is why the Fillmore Silver Spring chose Mary J. Blige, the R&B singer who uses her vocal cords like ballistic weapons, to baptize its gleaming 2,000-capacity venue Thursday night.
Everything about Blige’s inaugural Fillmore gig felt big: the hits, her band, those earrings. But for such a big night, her time onstage was woefully short — less than 75 minutes.
A few songs into the set, fans realized they were in the midst of a surprise. The singer was bounding through the track list of “My Life,” her acclaimed 1994 album produced by Sean “then-Puffy” Combs and Washington native Chucky Thompson.
Blige never mentioned the Fillmore’s grand opening, but performing “My Life” from start to finish felt like a subtle nod to it. It was a set list that fans already knew by heart, unfurled in a room that everyone was just getting accustomed to. Either that, or it was a plug for her upcoming album “My Life II . . . The Journey Continues (Act I),” due in November.
But the evening wasn’t just about a new album (or an old album). It was about a new club (and an old club).
Decades after legendary rock promoter Bill Graham opened the original Fillmore in San Francisco, global concert promotion goliath Live Nation has turned the Fillmore into a branded chain of nightclubs across the country, with its latest outpost in downtown Silver Spring. But it took nine years for the venue to open, a birth slowed by legal spats, fiery public debate and copious red tape.
On Thursday, eager fans had to wait just a bit longer. At 7 p.m., as doors were scheduled to open, a massive line of ticket holders stretched northeast on Colesville Road, around the corner of Fenton Street, then around the corner of Cameron Street. Those at the end of the line waited well over an hour to get into the venue, gridlock that organizers said was due to VIP ticket-holders being given first entry.
A glum mood quickly settled in. When a rainbow arched in the sunset overhead, no one in the motionless queue seemed to notice.
Thankfully, Blige’s music is all about catharsis, so when the 40-year-old took the stage belting out “Mary Jane (All Night Long),” frustrations seemed to vaporize with every “do” in the song’s “do-do-do-do-do” bridge.
By the time Blige reached the album’s sultry title track, the volume had risen to bracing levels. The bass was bullish, the guitars were piercing and Blige’s vocals were turned up so high in the mix that her lyrics seem more pointed than passionate.
It clashed with the visual harmony of the room, where overhead trusses were bathed in soft pastel lights and a quartet of crystal chandeliers appeared to glow lavender. Red velvet curtains lined the walls, giving the spacious venue a distinct warmth.
Blige created her own warmth during “Be With You,” vamping through some feel-good pick-me-ups at the top of her voice: “You heal me! I heal you! We get through!” When the song ended, the audience chanted, “Ma-ry! Ma-ry! Ma-ry!” She shouted back, “D-C! D-C! D-C!” If anything, a Mary J. Blige concert is about reciprocity (if not about geographical accuracy).
As the set wound down, she flubbed the track list — album cuts “Don’t Go” and “I Love You” came before “Be With You” and “Mary’s Joint.” But when Blige pointed her microphone toward the crowd for a grand finale singalong of “Be Happy,” it felt as if the Fillmore had officially been christened.
She returned for an encore, thanking fans effusively, claiming that “My Life” had been her finest hour. “That is the pinnacle,” Blige said. “I will never touch it.” Then she doled out a single from her upcoming sequel album called “25/8,” a forceful number about longing for more time. It was classic Blige in that she sounded both ecstatic and irritated at once.
Which might have been how the audience felt when Blige left the stage without playing another song.