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Three Songs No Flash

Heaven Sent: The Wonderful Live Return Of D'Angelo
Melissa Bradshaw , February 7th, 2012 12:26

D'Angelo has made a return to the live fray this year. Melissa Bradshaw headed to his Brixton Academy show, brimming with anticipation, and was met with a visceral performance, all sex, swagger and soul

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Could it have been more brilliant if, when the lights finally came up, D'Angelo had turned out to be fat? It was brilliant. To open such a hotly, anxiously awaited live show like that. Playing with your audience and knowing exactly what you are doing.

All the lights of Brixton Academy are down, the stage is dark, and for a first few, disparate notes, worried glances pass among of the audience. There is understandable trepidation - earlier this week, in Amsterdam, D'Angelo had fallen off the stage and had to postpone a show. Slowly, a few bass licks, drum kicks and rhythm guitars begin to synchronise into the cool, low swing of 'Playa Playa', those gospel vocals melting in and out. In the dark, we hear again the things that made Voodoo such a uniquely beautiful album – visceral, spiritual. Pino Palladino's legendary bass lines and hip hop drums played by Chris 'Daddy' Dave. A trip switches in my head, bringing back the feelings I'd had when as a twenty-year-old I first, obsessively, played D'Angelo's second album (I had it on a minidisc!), and – zoom! The lights come up and there is D'Angelo with a nine-piece band. Singing 'Feel Like Makin' Love'. Not only buff – enormous. Swaggering, cutting a stunning, muscles, vests and leather silhouette. It is so fucking cool.

Fears that D'Angelo had lost it were fuelled by arrests, rumours of drug addiction and alcoholism, and pictures in which he appeared bloated and fat. We never want our stars to lose their shine, but in D'Angelo's case, the significance of his being fat or not was particularly acute. When, eleven years ago, the video for 'Untitled', the hit single from Voodoo, showed D'Angelo apparently naked, ripped and glistening, pleading a lover whom any woman watching the video could feel was herself, his body became invested with an overwhelming amount of meaning. Here was a ridiculously fine man who, in a world casually throwing around images of semi-naked women as it constantly bullies and polices them about their bodies, put his body on display and said, 'I want you'. It was a video that catered for the way straight women see. "No-one", my friend tells me as we leave Brixton academy, "can tell me that female sexuality isn't visual!"

It has been suggested by Voodoo's drummer and producer Ahmir Thompson (aka Questlove) that the impact of 'Untitled' made D'Angelo want to be fat. Male viewers were said not to like the video. (I played 'Untitled' to a gay male friend recently, who scoffed and said something about narcissism). And if D'Angelo wanted to be fat because of all the women screaming 'get your kit off!' at his shows, doesn't that have something to do with the rarity of those kinds of images of men in R&B? It's unlikely those reactions have been the only reason for D'Angelo's absence, but what a sad testimony to the cultural censoring of feminine desire, if the ensuing war of words had destroyed the artist. And what a sad indictment too, of the stupid b*h behind me, who tries to make me apologise for knocking my drink over herself, nearly makes me fight her, keeps harassing both of my mates, and is clearly embarrassing her male companion. Yes, she is one of those women shouting "get your kit off!"

It's such a failure, of self-awareness as much as anything, not to recognise that it's far from just D'Angelo's body that makes him one of the hottest men on earth. He is often referred to (more by men, I notice) as the Jesus of R&B: already there are headlines about his resurrection. I find this both worrying and understandable. One stage, more clearly than on record, he appears to carry within and around him all the great gods of R&B and rock & roll. I keep detecting Sly Stone (still alive somewhere, in a caravan) in the tumbles of his voice, and Al Green in the top notes. Everything sounds more funky than I thought, and though the band are styled in the hallmarks of proper neo-soul era streetwear (denim jackets, leather, black flat caps, nice jewellery), their presence as an ensemble makes me think of Parliament. Indeed, a cover of 'I've Been Watching You' is one of the memorable moments of their set, while 'Shit, Damn, Motherfucker' gets a drawn-out funky treatment. The only woman on stage, vocalist Kendra Foster, wears PVC and face paint, but in general the band they look much more minimal than Soultronics, with whom D'Angelo toured Voodoo.

At other moments, D'Angelo seems to be reuniting the guitar with R&B, channelling the spirit of Jimi Hendrix - both in the mystical combination of his guitar and voice, and somehow through his lead guitarist, Jesse Johnson. Johnson is clad entirely in leather; leather trousers, leather jacket, wears a black (also leather?) trilby half over his face and plays two guitar solos that are both virtuoso and mad, chainsaw-like. I keep saying "Jimi" and my friend keeps saying "Sonny Sharrock". Our other friend says he's not so sure about that bit, "but did you notice those cymbal things, and is one of the vocalists playing the handclaps off that drum-pad thing?" We all do a lot of wide-eyed nodding, and grinning.

New song 'Sugar Daddy' has me hearing James Brown, in rhythmical intricacies marking the distance between D'Angelo's forthcoming album and the balladry of his debut, Brown Sugar.

That D'Angelo is able to summon such a great, awesome musical history makes me wish that UK music was more proud of itself. (PhatNights, the young music events company who organised two shows, deserve commendation for doing London proud ). It also makes me realise fully, how much talent, how many years of intense musical study must have gone into being able to put on a show like this. As D'Angelo rocks around the stage, bandana round his head, hair and clothes unruly, his low cut vest showing off his famous body, I am awed not because he is Jesus-like, but because he's a real man of enormous talent. I take my hat off. More than that, I bow, heart a-flutter.

And for all the gods he can summon, I think my favourite part of the show is D'Angelo, alone at the keyboard. Very much himself, virtuously tinkering and crooning. And the moment where, on playing the first few bars of 'Untitled', the audience begins to scream, and he bounces away from the keyboard, teasingly, then runs back and did it again. Looking confident, cheeky, and happy.

What if the lights had come up and D'Angelo had been fat? It could have been kinda cool, proving that his size was inconsequential to his music. But this is way better than that would have been: D'Angelo looking and sounding so deservedly comfortable with his fine self, as musician and performer. That is a real comeback.

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Stephen Dalton
Feb 8, 2012 1:05am

Fantastic review Melissa!

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Feb 8, 2012 4:42am

Fucking fantastic review. Wish I'd been there!

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Feb 8, 2012 4:48pm

it's like he looked in his vast wardrobe and couldn't decide what to wear so he thought fuck it, I will just wear all of it....

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Feb 10, 2012 1:50pm

Really? After Angus Finlayson's great article a while ago on the sexualisation/objectification of women in dance music you publish this?! Funny that you feature a review that's mostly based on the looks of a singer from another genre. Probably because he's male, so I suppose that's alright. A really dull, and really annoying approach to take. Substitue every time D'Angelo is mentioned in this for Maya Jane Coles and I'd like to see if you'd publish it then. Really disappointing.

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Feb 10, 2012 11:09pm

In reply to Emily:

'It's such a failure, of self-awareness as much as anything, not to recognise that it's far from just D'Angelo's body that makes him one of the hottest men on earth'... next time try reading the article properly, Emily.

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Feb 11, 2012 2:54pm

In reply to :

I've read it thanks, and other than that single sentence it's a "gig review" based almost entirely on someone's looks. In fact I count all of 7 sentences that comment on the music (rather than just describe what's going on).

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Feb 12, 2012 1:29pm

In reply to Emily:

A gig is a visual as well as a musical spectacle. If it wasn't, nobody would bother dressing up for them, putting on costumes, having spectacular shows... try imagining a world in which no-one was allowed to look at each other at all? Objectification entails treating someone as a visual object and nothing more: if I had been doing that, why would I want to make the point that
'It's such a failure, of self-awareness as much as anything, not to recognise that it's far from just D'Angelo's body that makes him one of the hottest men on earth'?

Aside from that, I was deliberately intervening in the overemphasis on D'Angelo's appearance, which is why I gave the context and background for that. Comments about D'Angelo being fat have been all over the media (and I've come across a lot of them in personal circumstances) and I did a lot of research into that before writing this.

If what I was doing was as stupid and bland as you want to represent it as, a) The Quietus wouldn't have published it, and b) I guess you think all the other people who like this review are also stupid?

Or do you think, perhaps, that they haven't deliberately missed the point? It's funny that you bring up Angus' article because you seem like some of the people who were posting in reply to my comments on there, who seemed hellbent on (deliberately) misreading what I do in order to attack me. I wonder why that is.

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Emily West
Feb 12, 2012 7:49pm

Hi Melissa, thanks for getting back to me.

Like i said earlier, I think that sentence is a bit of a qualifier, an afterthought in an article that's otherwise pretty shallow. No idea why the Quietus published it, as I originally said. That certainly doesn't mean that I think everyone who likes it is stupid, I just think they have a different opinion to me. It really doesn't bother me, or mean that I've formed any judgement on their intelligence. But equally it doesn't make me want to change my opinion on it just so that I fit in with the majority view.

I'm sorry that you feel this is a personal attack, or part of some kind of conspiracy against you. It really is just me, acting alone, expressing my opinion on this one article. In fact, looking back through the site, one of your previous pieces of writing on here is a favourite of mine (the hiphop/glastonbury article). It's nothing to do with you as a person, your writing style, your sociopolitical views or any Angus Finlayson based conspiracy - I just really don't like this article, and stated why above.

I still think it's a case of objectification in how it's written. Obviously I can now see that this isn't what you were going for, as you are so vehemently pointing out, but that's how it came across to me and that's why I chose to write the original comment. Nothing deliberate or targeted about it. It's just an opinion.

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Feb 13, 2012 10:33am

In reply to Emily West:

You didn't say that earlier. I find counting the sentences in someone's article, to prove your point, an odd way of not being deliberate.

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Emily West
Feb 13, 2012 11:13am

In reply to Melissa :

I counted the sentences after I was accused of not reading the article properly, I also wanted to check that I wasn't being unreasonable in my judgement of it - but no, there really were that few mentions of music. You're right though, I didn't say originally that it was a qualifier - it was what I was thinking while I wrote the original reply, but I don't seem to have put it down in that comment. Point still stands though - that's exactly what I think it is.

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Feb 13, 2012 3:33pm

In reply to Emily West:

Ah I see. I must have just missed the English class at school where reading amounted to counting. But thanks for adding it up for me - I'm sure you're absolutely right.

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Feb 15, 2012 11:30am

In reply to Melissa:

Jesse Johnson in Wax Poetics

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