Live Review: Ashanti, Trey Songz and Mario (and Aitch) at AO Arena
By Jay Darcy
What a night! It started with a splendid set from a DJ who really got the crowd warmed up. He reappeared, either before or after Mario‘s set; I can’t quite remember Whilst I thought Mario – who often tours with Ashanti and another male artist (last time, Ginuwine) – was the support act, he was more of a co-headliner, relegated to “special guest” on the poster.
The real support act was Kiara Marzella – who was very happy to be on the AO Arena stage, not only because it’s one of the biggest arenas in the world, but because she’s been living in Manchester for the past few years. Marzella was captivating. Her vocals, her dance moves, her presence, her poise, and her unrivalled sex appeal made for an entertaining set. I love that she brought back-up dancers with her. Most opening acts have to work the whole stage by themselves, but Marzella is a diva in the making!
The arena was filling up by this point; most people wanted to catch Mario. All these years later, Mario’s still got it. He has aged like fine wine. His soothing vocals and vivacious sex appeal have gotten better over time.
He began his set with his debut single, ‘Just a Friend 2002’ (a loose remake of Biz Markie‘s ‘Just a Friend’ – one of my all-time favourite hip-hop songs). ‘How Do I Breathe’ made an appearance a few songs later, and he unsurprisingly ended his set with his signature hit, ‘Let Me Love You.’ What was a surprise, though, was not seeing ‘Here I Go Again’ make an appearance – it’s one of Mario’s few chart hits, so you’d expect him to sing it.
I only knew ‘Just a Friend 2002’ and ‘Let Me Love You’ – but it was great seeing two iconic songs performed live.
A highlight of his set was when he brought a female audience member up on stage, sat her on a stool, and basically gave her a lap dance. This girl was not shy – heck, she started grinding on him when he went behind her! It was cringe-worthy – vulgar, even – but highly entertaining. Also, can we please appreciate his washboard abs? Holy crap!
Whilst the crowd loved Mario, Trey Songz had them going wild. He began his set with ‘Can’t Help But Wait’ – his first hit as a lead artist. Other hits include ‘Slow Motion’ (his most-streamed song on Spotify), ‘Simply Amazing’ (his only UK top 10 hit) and ‘Na Na.’ His penultimate song was his biggest hit, ‘Bottoms Up’ (featuring Nicki Minaj), and he finished on ‘Say Ahh’ (feat. Fabalous) – his first song to chart internationally.
I will not lie, I was unfamiliar with every song save for ‘Bottoms Up’, but the set seemed to be nostalgic for much of the audience. It’s not the kind of music I listen to much, but I can appreciate it – and Songz has remarkable stage presence.
Ashanti’s official tour DJ then made an appearance. He reminded the audience about the official after-party that he was hosting – where Mario would, once again, be a special guest. The after-party was at Cargo, which the DJ revealed used to be Tiger Tiger. He honed in on the nostalgia of the night: “We’re going to Tiger Tiger!” he joked.
He got us ready for Ashanti with a banging set that included TLC‘s ‘No Scrub’ and Blu Cantrell‘s ‘Breathe (featuring Sean Paul). I saw Cantrell in this very arena (she was pretty bad), but sadly TLC have just cancelled part of their UK tour, which includes their Manchester date.
Then came the moment I had been waiting for – indeed, the only reason I was there: Ashanti!
Whilst the tour is billed as a co-headline tour with Ashanti and Songz, Ashanti is the real headliner. After all, the tour is called ‘ASHANTI The Anniversary Tour’ and ‘Celebrating 20 Years of Foolish.’ She had back-up dancers, a DJ, smoke, fire, pyrotechnics and confetti – we were here to celebrate her incredible 20-year career.
She blasted through her set, sometimes only singing the first third of a song, other times only singing the chorus. She’s got an extensive catalogue of absolute bangers, and she’d risk upsetting a whole lot of people (i.e. me) if she missed just one of them. This is the problem with having six artists perform in one night: their stage time is limited. Still, I’m glad Ashanti found a way to sing all of her hits. Janet Jackson famously does medleys so that she does not miss anything – something she does not seem to be doing on her current tour.
Ashanti’s set began with ‘Happy’ – which really encapsulated the mood of the audience. Her many songs with Ja Rule really got the audience going; they descended into a nostalgic frenzy. She even sang some lesser hits, such as ‘Pac’s Life’ (Tupac featuring Ashanti and T.I.) and ‘Southside’ (Lloyd featuring Ashanti). I was gobsmacked when she sang ‘Pac’s Life’ – I absolutely adore it, but I was not expecting it to make an appearance.
I like that most songs were introduced with some context, or a little word play. For instance, after Ashanti had previously revealed that she writes all of her own music, her DJ revealed that she also writes songs for other artists. I knew what was coming – she’d only be singing Jennifer Lopez‘ ‘Ain’t It Funny (Murder Remix)’ (featuring Ja Rule). Ashanti only recently received recognition for her work on the Murder Remixes of ‘Ain’t It Funny’ and ‘I’m Real’ (she sang the demo for the latter and backing vocals on its official release), so it was only fitting that she celebrated that on this anniversary tour.
Perhaps the highlight of her set, though, was Manchester own’s Aitch making a guest appearance! After singing ‘Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)’, she told the audience that the song is two decades old.
The duo then sang the recently released ‘Baby’, which, of course, samples ‘Rock Wit U (Awww Baby).’ Ashanti had made a surprise appearance during Aitch’s set at Big Weekend the day before this tour began, so it was a nice touch for Ashanti to bring Aitch out on the final night of the tour – in Aitch’s hometown of Manchester!
This performance was miles better than their first, which was quite clearly unrehearsed and lacked any real chemistry.
Ashanti’s penultimate performance was a medley of her debut single as a leading artist, ‘Foolish’, and the promotional version of the single, ‘Unfoolish’ (featuring the Notorious B.I.G.). It brought the event to its climax, complete with confetti and pyrotechnics. It was a real celebration of this ground-breaking single.
The set ended with Ashanti dancing to a song played by the DJ. It was a chill, casual end to a constructed concert.
Whilst I am not so familiar with the music of Mario and Trey Songz, they are both fantastic performers who make dope-ass music. Whilst the concert was a little long, and I was tired by the time Ashanti came on (10PMish), she was well worth the wait. She’s one of the best performers I’ve ever seen, and whilst the sound was not great, she gave it her all and song her heart out.