D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah tour began on an auspicious chord at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater last night. It’s hard to imagine that a performance with such high expectations projected onto it could actually exceed them but–much as with the anticipation and ultimate reception to the album that bears the same name–that is exactly what happened. Anxieties and questions–about the possibility of recreating Black Messiah‘s spare, distinctive sonic landscape in a live setting, about the vitality of D’s voice and performance chops, the eternal question mark over whether he would, in fact, show up–all turned out to be misplaced. If it was obvious that this would a great live show from the very first crisp drum crack from Chris “Daddy” Dave‘s snare, D’Angelo & The Vanguard steadily raised the bar from that baseline of merely great to higher and higher heights of greatness throughout the night.
To put those expectations and anxieties in some context, the first three songs were performed in total darkness, the house lights still down. The audience rose to their feet just seconds after the sound of Khalid Muhammad‘s voice from the sampled vocal intro to “1000 Deaths” was heard, however, reacting instantly to the first glimpse of a shadowy figure stepping up to the mic stand at the front of the stage. D’Angelo’s fanbase has been so starved for music Lo, these last 15 years that the man commands a standing O simply for showing, before he’s even opened his mouth. Those are the kinds of expectations that almost inevitably give way to anti-climax but D’Angelo and his team demonstrated what they’ve spent at least the last few of those 15 perfecting, retroactively earning–and then surpassing–all the hype.
The run of show was masterful to the point of manipulative. Pre-Valentine’s prerequisites like “Really Love” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” came surprisingly early, throwing an early bone to female fans (and in case anybody thought the album’s lofty subject matter had put D beyond the sex-god status of olden days, women in my row were whooping and yelling “look at those arms” as soon as D took off his leather jacket. The lights were still down). By the time of the emotional but politically charged Black Messiah coda “The Charade” (also surprisingly early) more fists were in the air, both onstage and in the crowd, than at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Almost every new song was accompanied by a dramatic symbolic gesture (D straps on his axe for unexpected guitar solo, D dons Josey Wales high plains drifter hat to channel MJ for a dance step) that brought home the impact of what we were witnessing–and where.
The sound was nothing short of phenomenal, Russ Elevado looking over the soundman’s shoulder to sprinkle magic dragon-dust on the board, resulting in a mix that was a crisper analogue of Black Messiah‘s unique dissonance. Chris “Daddy” Dave ably demonstrated why he is the only working drummer that Questlove admits to “losing sleep over” alternating effortlessly between multisyllabic time signatures and crowd-pleasing breaks. Most of all D’Angelo’s vocal prowess was in full form; not only crooning in his trademark falsetto but also funk-talking like Larry Blackmon and when called upon, wailing like a more soulful Axl Rose (underscoring the complaints of some that his vocals are mixed too low on the album itself, begging the question: why bury all that greatness in the mix?)
Though rehearsing the Vanguard’s incredible range, from drunken post-Dilla drums to Fishbone-y afropunk to jamband work outs that sounded like Weather Report playing Black Sabbath to the expected funk in Eddie Hazel/Ohio Players mode–if The Roots perfected ‘Hip-Hop 101’ D’Angelo’s live shows are starting to feel like Black Music 101–the most persistent guiding spirit of the night’s performance was undoubtedly James Brown. A living connection to James was embodied by the presence of D’s (originally Mr. Brown’s) tour manager Alan Leeds, who oversaw proceeding from the wings looking like Hollywood’s idea of Jehovah in silver-white hair and all-white ensemble. But more to the musical point, not only were JBs’ riffs sprinkled liberally throughout the arrangements–from an extended monologue over a variation on “Same Beat” to a live “remix” of “Brown Sugar” to horns that openly referenced Maceo & The Macks–but D put the band through their paces as a bandleader in classic “we called him Mr. Brown” style, counting out the vamps and stopping abruptly on the one to see who was slipping. Nobody was slipping. The first encore, in fact, was nothing less than an unannounced James Brown tribute, less a conventional encore than an extended b-side variation to the entire first half of the show. It quickly became a sweaty, take-’em-to-church workout, complete with spontaneous dance-offs and “good gawds” that raised the energy in the Apollo to a fever pitch it likely hasn’t experienced in decades. As music historian and pre-eminent journalist Nelson George put it, debriefing the Okayplayer team in the after-show lounge below decks “it makes you realize that this kind of live music used to happen night after night at places like the Apollo–and how starved we are for that now.”
Yet this too was just prelude, an excursion in the journey-creating run of show, as a second encore gave D the opportunity to shed the proverbial cape and–having established his connection to the flowing stream of black music history–re-assert his individuality and personal artistry as he sat down to the keyboards to play the opening chords of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” to the sound of orgasmic (female) screams from the audience. After a lingering, intimate rendition Kendra Foster sang her last “how does it feeeel” and one by one the band members solo-ed and then left the stage, leaving one man seated at the keys, bringing the church service to a close with the most personal of connections. “Would you help me sing the chorus?” D’Angelo asked the assembled congregation. They would. “I Love you, Apollo” he replied. And with that, it was really over.