Let there be some clarity on the state of D’Angelo. R&B Jesus still has it. The singer and multi-instrumentalist made his first appearance in Montreal at the Olympia Theater on Thursday night and proved why he received that dramatic nickname.
Those in attendance witnessed what the world missed for those 12 years he stayed out of the limelight after his sophomore album Voodoo landed in 2000. Never one to rush the production of his recordings (Voodoo came five years after the 1995 breakout hit Brown Sugar), D’Angelo’s performance gave fans reasons to be optimistic about his return to the music world and about the possibility of a new album in the future.
D’Angelo and his eight-piece band the Vanguard put on a performance that would have made James Brown proud. Along with direct quotes to James Brown call-and-responses such as “Fred is dead/no he ain’t,” the arrangements were tight and the show almost felt like an old school music revue. D’Angelo spent much of the night switching instruments and stage places, all the while maintaining complete command of his voice and the band. He began with some classics such as “Left and Right” and “Brown Sugar” and then hinted at new material with a guitar-heavy, Prince-esque psychedelic soul song entitled “The Charade.” Just when listeners might think he was taking his music in a rock ‘n’ roll direction, he went into full-fledged gospel mode. The result was a slow, greasy, 6/8 version of “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” that electrified the crowd and took the show to another level.
After that, he truly had the room in the palm of his hand. He followed with his cover of the Smokey Robinson tune “Cruisin’” during which the audience gladly sang along. Then, sitting alone in the spotlight at the keyboard, it only took one short plunk of a chord for the audience to erupt.
Many had been waiting for the very moment that he would delve into the song that led him to superstardom with the infamous music video of his naked, chiseled body: “Untitled (How Does it Feel).” The teasing way he performed the song – playing a few notes and abruptly stopping, taunting the desiring audience – makes one wonder whether he is reluctant to play it nowadays or simply a master of restraint. Both are likely true.
The band concluded the concert with the new song “Sugar Daddy” which evolved into a quintessential James Brown-style jam, complete with screeching vocals and D’Angelo calling out the number of hits for the band. He would raise his hand, telling the band to hit once, twice, five times, or more, ending the show with an impressive 27½ hits.
The only complaint was that the sound in the room was too loud. Some of the subtleties in the music were drowned out by the sheer bombast of it all. At times, particularly with the keyboard and lead guitar, the volume was almost earsplitting.
That said, there was never a dull moment. The roughly 90 minute set flew by. The band’s cohesiveness was astounding and there was even some room to breathe for instrumental soloists such as long time D’Angelo bassist Pino Palladino, drum virtuoso Chris Dave, and lead guitarist Jesse Johnson.
By design or not, D’Angelo always leaves his audiences wanting more. Whether it is due to his lack of studio record output or just wanting the camera to zoom out just a little bit more in the “Untitled” music video, people can’t get enough. He proved on Thursday that he still has his fans right where he wants them.
Those interested in his well being can also take comfort in the fact that it appears that his music has reclaimed priority over his sexuality as his primary draw. His voice is there. His funky, punchy keyboard style is alive and well. He now plays guitar. We can all rest easy knowing that D’Angelo is back on the scene. Now we can only hope that he remains healthy … and finishes that new album.
*Photos by Evan Crandell