D’Angelo didn’t have to show his abs.
By the time his album Voodoo hit back in the early dawn of the 2000s, the forbearer of the neo-soul flame from Richmond, Virginia was already established as a force to be reckoned with. With his 1995 album Brown Sugar, he shined a light on and gave name to this re-expression of a music deeply embedded in African-American culture. The five years between Sugar and Voodoo saw the genre blossom in ways that nobody could have expected. Jazz, hip-hop, funk, and even rock and roll: Nothing was off limits, especially when it came to D’Angelo’s own music.
Co-written and produced by fellow neo-soulophile Raphael Saadiq, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” on its own packed in as much sex-per-square-inch as could possibly be allowed on the airwaves. A deep cut that smashed together the innocent soul practiced by the likes of Al Green, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding, with the more get-to-the-point bedroom jams that dominated mid-to-late-80s R&B radio, the track already held the libidos of fans hostage, melting speakers and inhibitions in equal measure.
And then the video happened. Unnecessary in all the best ways, D’Angelo, fairly or not, went from just being a talented up-and-coming purveyor of neo-soul to being a legend. It wasn’t just smart marketing and smart sales; it was an indication of total commitment to his music, his identity, and most importantly, his duty to spread this new history of a culture’s experience as far and as wide as humanly possible.
And that’s the D’Angelo who showed up at The Fillmore Silver Spring last Thursday night.
Touring in support of Black Messiah, his unmitigated masterpiece released late in 2014, D’Angelo and his band The Vanguard (featuring singer Kendra Foster, Jesse Johnson of The Time fame, and bassist Pino Palladino, who curiously wasn’t present for this show) hit the stage at full rev to the hard-funk psychedelia of “Ain’t That Easy” and never let off the throttle. Subbing straight-up funk showmanship for Messiah’s often dense instrumentation, the D’Angelo and the Vanguard review roared through tracks “Sugah Daddy” and “The Charade” with a righteous fury and conviction that threatened Prince’s claim to the best-musician-of-all throne, even while borrowing liberally from his playbook. More impressive though was that they turned up the sweat on tracks like “Betray My Heart,” “Really Love,” and the AM Gold worthy jam of “Back to the Future (Part 1).”
And then there was that take on “Chicken Grease” off of 2011’s Voodoo that would have made James Brown blush. It’s unclear if, in 2015, we deserve a funk-and-soul rave-up that good, but hey, we’ll take it!
In the end, though, it came down to a hit. It wasn’t a question of if “Untitled” would be played, because let’s be honest: A lot of people paid the steep but ultimately-worth-it ticket price just to hear the hits. Specifically THAT hit. And as the band churned up the intro, D’Angelo slunk to the mic only to quickly retreat, shaking his head and mouthing “I’m gonna take my time.” Sad to say that if you were there on a date, the collective sigh it produced will be your memory of the moment you just lost your partner to D’Angelo. But mass uncoupling is the risk you take. Rather than revel in his triumph, D’Angelo eventually commandeered the mic and let the song do its work, which…let’s just say… turned up the heat.
As the portal to the bump-and-grindaverse that D’Angelo had willed the audience through began to close, with each member of The Vanguard being played off stage to a vamp of D’Angelo repeatedly asking, “How does it feel?” the temperature cooled, minds contracted ever so slightly, and the room came back down to earth for the first time in the almost-two-hour set. The Second Coming tour is over now – at least the American leg – and who knows if we’ll see D’Angelo onstage again in one year, ten, or fourteen. But if it took fourteen years to develop this ultimate review of soul, black culture, human culture, and universal truths, then let it simmer for however long it takes.
All photos by Kevin Hill. Click to embiggen.