Heaven Sent: The Wonderful Live Return Of D'Angelo
, 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
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 http://www.phatnights.com/ ). 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.