Janet Jackson concerts are about many things, but joy is rarely one of them. Her default look is stern indifference, and her signature dance steps evoke the military. Almost nothing looks effortless.
Wednesday night at the Smoothie King Center, Jackson started her show grimly determined, but by the midpoint, she loosened up, by her standards. And by the end, she actually seemed to be having fun.
Jackson is on tour for the first time in four years to support “Unbreakable,” her first studio album in nine years. She last played New Orleans at the Essence Music Festival in 2010, her first show after her brother Michael died.
That was a dark show, one where danger seemed to lurk in the wings. The night was sexual without being sexy, and the sexuality came from a needy, compulsive place.
Wednesday, a different Jackson performed. She was so chastely covered that only her face and fingers could be seen. Her black blouse came up to her chin, her sleeves covered her palms and her black leggings were tucked into black high-top running shoes.
At first, Jackson was difficult to read. She danced hard, the band played hard, and she flipped her lengthy mane as if she meant it. Her hard, angular dance moves and martial precision drained much of the fun out of the playful “Miss You Much.” Only a blown kiss here and a flicker of a grin there let on that she was having any fun at all.
It didn’t help that the show started enigmatically with CGI black birds on three screens in front of the stage menacing the crowd. The animated bird imagery returned throughout the show, and its meaning never got clearer. When one was shot with an arrow, it writhed in pain until it pulled the arrow out of its breast with its beak. When the show ended, the final image was that of the bird triumphant.
One thing that became clearer as the show went on was the singer’s mood. After a run of ballads that included “Again,” “Come Back to Me” and an audience sing-along version of “Let’s Wait a While,” the shy grins came a little more frequently. When a video of J. Cole mentioned “M.J.” during his rap in the new “No Sleeep,” Jackson pointed heavenward.
During “Together Again” from her 1997 “The Velvet Rope” album and “The Best Things in Life Are Free” — a duet with the late Luther Vandross — Jackson joined her backing dancers to bounce at the songs’ irresistible beat.
Those two songs introduced an exhilarating conclusion of high-energy hits, including “Black Cat,” “If,” “Scream” — her duet with Michael — and “Rhythm Nation.” She seemed fully engaged — stern when the moment called for it, soft when it suited the song, and obviously appreciative of the audience’s energy and love.
For the encore, Jackson bravely featured two songs from her new album, “Shoulda Known Better” and the title cut. It was good marketing, but it was risky to end with songs that were new to much of the crowd.
The former struck the lone political note of the night: While Jackson sang, backlit behind one of the video screens, images of the homeless, the starving and the under-attack were shown, seemingly documenting the failures of governments around the world.
Her antidote was “Unbreakable,” which featured Jackson at her happiest. The song celebrates a love that is unbreakable, and it’s sung to a “you” that could be God, Michael or perhaps a close confidante. As it ends with her singing, “I met someone,” it’s unlikely that she’s singing to Wissam al-Mana, the Qatari tycoon she married in 2012.
The show also had moments that seemed inadvertently sad. During “That’s the Way Love Goes,” her dance troupe hung out at center stage, seemingly clowning and dancing with each other, while she sang and danced by herself a lonely 15 or so feet away. It echoed her relationship to those around her in the song’s original video, and it seemed emblematic of something larger.
Still, the fact she never changed costumes made the show feel like a complete thought rather than a series of set pieces, and it even suggested that Jackson is happy in her way.