On the night of 14 June 2015, I saw D’Angelo and his band perform at the Tabernacle, a former church converted into a beautiful, acoustically remarkable, concert venue. I’d been there before, on Valentine’s Day 2014, to dance to Trey Anastasio and his band. That show was terrific but D’Angelo’s was otherworldly. Maybe I just have good luck at that venue.
I hadn’t planned on going. $75 a ticket seemed much; it was a Sunday night; I live in Athens, 70 miles away. Hell, I didn’t even know about the show until my friend Louisa called me to ask if I was going. I’ve loved D’Angelo since back in the day, and Voodoo (2000) was one of Those Records That Got Me Through Life. Something she said in that phone call stuck with me. “Walter, I know it’s 75 bucks,” she said, “and you’ll have to book a hotel room for the night, so more like $150. But I want you to think about this: You could save that 150 bucks. You could. But, in twenty years, if you don’t spend that $150 on this show, will you remember how you spent that money you saved?”
No, I wouldn’t. So I went. And I’ll remember it. Here’s the letter I wrote to her and my friend Dan two days later. It’s slightly edited, to remove personal details, but otherwise this is what I wrote in a rush while the concert was fresh in my memory. Enjoy.
Dear Louisa and Dan,
Around the fourth song, “Brown Sugar” (from D’Angelo’s first album), I did something I don’t normally do at shows. Normally, I’m in the moment, just sweating and shuffling my feet and singing along. And I was doing that here. But I was also at a remove, looking at the show from a bird’s-eye view a bit, and ranking the show as it was happening. As in: Is this the best concert I’ve ever attended? The Bob Mould show at Nuomo’s in 2005 has been in the top #3, with the Old 97’s New Year’s Eve show at the Longhorse Ballroom swapping with the Mould in my mind. The 2nd Phish show I saw (7/26/97, Austin, TX, Southpark Meadows) is always in the mix. Is this show, right now, as good as those? That’s not the question—it clearly is. But is it better?
I was consciously thinking these things as D’Angelo and his 10-piece band roared and shimmied and coaxed their way through a 3-hour show that modulated between hard funk, sly croon, sober meditation, and balls-to-the-wall rockout. I drank only water, so my mind was clear. (Have I ever told you that, on principle, I don’t drink or do drugs at concerts? I might have a beer at a show, but even that’s rare. There’s lots of reasons for this, but mostly it’s that I figure that, if I’ve made the effort and expense to be there, I want to remember it and to experience it, and those desires circumvent any wish to get fucked up.)
What astonished me immediately about D’Angelo were three things:
1) The use of call-and-response throughout the show, with D’Angelo coaxing the audience into singing along and timed hand-claps, gestures… without being overtly theatrical about it. It all felt natural, the movements of a man totally in control of both the band and his audience. He’s up there dancing, changing costumes, interacting with the band, playing guitar and keyboards, singing his heart out in a variety of modes (croon, shout, R&B simmer, angry swagger), and he’s fully present in all of it. He’s pudgier than he was when he last did this, but he’s not fat; he looks like a fit 41-year-old man, which is what he is, after all. But, if I’m that energetic and alert onstage for 3 hours at his age, I’ll be doing all right. He was totally comfortable in his skin, which was sexy as hell, and magnetic. You couldn’t take your eyes off him.
2) His band. They’re as responsive to him as he is to the sold-out crowd. There’s a lot of stagework on top of the musicianship–synchronized hip shakes and dancing, band members crisscrossing the stage and switching mikes, music that stops on a dime (and then starts again). Kendra Foster, mostly doing backup singing, co-wrote many of the lyrics on Black Messiah, and she’s electric. She’s never not in motion, with these hypnotic dance moves that aren’t purely sexualized or provocative—just really cool, spacey, and yet somehow always on point with the rhythms. The band, including D’Angelo, is dressed mostly in blacks and greys, which means that, as theatrical as the show sometimes gets, the motions don’t feel flashy or forced, like “Oh wow we’re going to impress you now.”
3) The songs are both exactly like the studio versions but also expansive, with room to breathe, with breaks for improvisation, with sudden switches in time signature, tempo, and melody. As audience members, we always knew where the songs were and where they were headed, but we were also consistently surprised by them.
D’Angelo played about an hour. As we were cheering, a guy next to me said, “that was good but it seemed short.” I said, “honestly, I think we’re just getting started.” And I was right. The first encore, coming after a delicious wait, lasted about 45 minutes, roaring through stuff on Voodoo (my favorite of his three records) and Black Messiah, plus a vamp that appeared to be unconnected to any particular song. And then another wait.
It was during the second encore that I finally decided that this was the best concert I’d ever been privileged to see. After playing my 2nd-favorite song on Black Messiah—“Tutu (Til It’s Done)”—he dove into the song we all knew he would play, and the song we all knew he was the most ambivalent about. Indeed, he mock-started it at least 5 times, going up to the mike, opening his mouth to start the first verse, and then turning away hilariously at the last second, the band vamping behind him.
When he finally got going, something beautiful and really touching happened. You know how, in Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, the concert starts with just David Byrne onstage, and with each song a new band member comes on stage? This was the opposite of that. The drummer stepped away first, walking up to D’Angelo and giving him a high five, and then walking off the stage. Everyone else keeps playing. We all keep singing, “How does it feeeeeellll?” Then, a minute later, a backup singer does it, giving D’Angelo an honest-to-God hug before he departs. Then one of the guitarists. And so on. Each time a band member leaves, he or she gets thunderous applause. Eventually, D’Angelo’s sitting, playing his Yamaha keyboard, and it’s just him, Kendra Foster, and Pino Palladino. The song has lost most of its musicians but none of its intensity, because the audience’s swaying and singing keeps it going. D’Angelo planned it that way, of course, but it doesn’t feel planned. Kendra leaves, with the crowd thundering for her.
So, that leaves D’Angelo and Pino. If you’ve read my Glide piece, then you know what I think Pino adds to D’Angelo’s vision. The crowd knows it, too. You don’t have the world’s best funk/R&B/soul/dance band in the world without a great bassist. Even before Pino puts down his instrument, people are cheering for him. He gives D’Angelo a hug at the piano—for a second, the music stops (because D’Angelo is hugging him back)—and we keep it going with our singing and rhythmic handclaps. Finally, D’Angelo stops on the perfect cadence, and simply says, almost shyly, “We are so grateful, and so blessed. Thank you.”
And he’s gone.
Look, Robert Christgau wrote a better version of this 15 years ago, but nothing has changed in the interim, except D’Angelo didn’t take his shirt off. He didn’t need to.
It was some show, man.
Love and all best,
P.S. Oh, one thing I forget to mention: I always thought women throwing bras at the stage was a rock-movie cliché that didn’t happen in real life. But, um, no, apparently it’s a thing. Girls were near passing out.