This summer, D’Angelo has played his first U.S. shows in a long time (he played Europe earlier in the year), and I saw him “co-headlining” Mary J. Blige’s Liberation tour. I have a longer piece coming out soon for Popmatters about his music, so I won’t go too much into his recordings here, but they rely heavily on his layered vocals – unlike many soul or funk singers, he doesn’t rely on the single powerful voice, he multiplies his voice repeatedly and sends it out in unpredictable waves. To account for this, his band included four backing vocalists; three guys and one mesmerizing lady clad in shiny leather pants. In addition, he had a drummer, two guitarists, a bassist, and two men barricaded behind a rampart of keyboards and synthesizers, capable of wringing pretty much any sound out of their instruments (notably, they effectively replicated a tooting horn section). On top of all that firepower, D’Angelo now plays a guitar of his own in performances – he strapped it on for threeish songs – and he retains his virtuosity behind the keyboard.
D’Angelo didn’t play that many songs, but he made each one count. When he played his old material, he stuck to the faster songs and avoided most of the ballads. The set started with “Left And Right,” a piece of splintery funk, before it moved into “Chicken Grease,” a song D’Angelo supposedly named after an obscure term used by Prince for a certain type of guitar playing. “Chicken Grease,” loosely funk on recording, was tightened into something driving and fearsome.
D’Angelo worked the crowd, making us do a strange two-handed motion every time the 2nd guitarist left the propulsive central riff to hammer a single note over and over. (The rest of the night, one woman to my left periodically yelled out “Chicken Grease!!” regardless of who or what was playing). When D’Angelo and Co. played “Lady” – which, due to the demographics of the crowd, went over especially well – it received a similarly powerful treatment. D’Angelo’s recordings are relatively leisurely; with the exception of “Devil’s Pie” and maybe “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” both off his second album, his music doesn’t really pound, it slinks and oozes and grooves forward, stealthily stalking the listener. Seeing the music live is another thing entirely; it’s far more muscular, capable of charging and exploding. Each song pounces on you.
Most of the time, live versions of songs are more powerful than their studio counterparts, so to keep you on your toes, D’Angelo sometimes completely reinvents his songs. Even a big hit offers a template for him to play. The recorded version of “Brown Sugar,” the title track on D’Angelo’s first album, centers on a little keyboard motif. Live, D’Angelo moved the central riff to the guitars. During the chorus, each of the vocalists – five total, including D’Angelo – cascaded through the chorus at a slightly different time, pitching the chaos of the hook against the tight riffs that carried the verses. The recording of “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” is a slow burn of a tune about finding a cheating lover. D’Angelo split it into two parts and reworked them both. The first part was impossibly slow; the chorus of “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” became “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn, Moooooooooooooooooooooooooooootherfuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucker” (it’s hilarious to hear five immensely talented singers swear so loudly for so long). Then D’Angelo walked off stage, returning with his guitar. All three guitarists proceeded to pick the song apart and pile it back together again, making it meaner and more imposing each time.
The crowd at a D’Angelo show is totally at his mercy (myself included). He’s a great dancer and he’s perfectly coordinated with his band, but his control was most apparent when he was sitting alone on stage behind his keyboard. He noodled for a while, then led a sing along to Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’.” When he broke into the opening notes of “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” his famously near-nude hit, the screaming began in earnest. But he stopped. He stood up, walked in front of his keyboard, stared at the audience and crossed his arms. I yelled, feeling every bit as tortured as the 40 year-old women screaming all around me. Finally, he moved slowly back in the direction of his piano, as if it hardly mattered where he was going. He played a few more notes. . . stopped. Then led the whole place in a sing along. He didn’t play more than two minutes of the song (the album version is longer than seven). But he didn’t need to do anything more – everyone felt tantalized and then completely satisfied. The way he teased and tweaked the audience was something I’ve rarely seen in a live performance (the video below gives you an idea, but he made us work a lot harder for it).
There were other performances as well. Before D’Angelo, Melanie Fiona played. She’s got a strong voice and can own a stage, but she made the mistake of thinking that cranking up the guitar on every one of her songs made them more intense and emotional. Instead, it cut the urgency and made them sound a lot alike. MJB played to end the evening, with almost as big a band as D’Angelo, and a drummer that sounded like thunder. The crowd was excited to see her, and the women around me danced vigorously. She sings songs of female empowerment, and she doesn’t play coy like D’Angelo. She gives the crowd what they want, quickly and well. D’Angelo plays with expectations. He is a master of playing hard to get – the kind of guy that might really piss off Mary J. Blige, or fans who want a sequel to his last album, which came out 12 years ago.