By Joel Stagg
February 3, 2012
Back last autumn when I purchased tickets to see D’Angelo at the slightly generous price of £40 a pop, the normal feelings of excitement and anticipation rubbed shoulders with some less usual ones. D’Angelo’s so-called sabbatical since the year 2000 when he dropped Voodoo, inhabited by well-publicised dalliances with drugs, alcohol abuse, rehabilitation in Antigua and dalliances on the wrong side of the law, led to a certain morbid curiosity and also a sense of trepidation. It seemed I wasn’t alone when the comedian Kojo, who hosted the evening, asked of the audience – “How many of you came just to see if he still looks the same?”
There were a few bad omens. The tour had been somewhat opportunistically labelled the ‘Occupy Music’ tour, the announcement of the gigs around the same time as the Occupy movement’s peak media coverage obviously setting off a few lightbulbs in the D’Angelo camp. Secondly, the tickets came emblazoned with ‘D’Angelo for One Night Only’ across them, surely designed to lure in as many fans as possible, but somewhat optimistic and contradictory considering the ‘3rd & 4th Feb’ sign on the front of the Brixton Academy. And at the gig itself, the crowd grew restless after two warm-up segments from Kojo, a spritely three-song opening slot from Bluey Robinson, and a public service announcement calling for more black bone marrow donors, all seemingly leading into an imminent D’Angelo appearance which eventually took over an hour more to happen.
But needless to say, within seconds of gracing the stage, all doubts, morbid curiosities and restlessness were obliterated. In what remains in my mind one of the most intense and exciting opening sections to a gig I’ve ever witnessed, he and his band tore through a Voodoo heavy-set featuring the likes of ‘Playa Playa’, ‘Devil’s Pie’, ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’, ‘The Root’ and a particularly high-powered ‘Chicken Grease’. D’Angelo struck an enigmatic and energetic figure, yelping and wailing and getting the crowd in hysterics, one removed item of clothing at a time, whilst still managing to sound like one of the most powerful and competent soul singers of our time. It’s for good reason that he can disappear for so many years and come back like this. The band was tight as they come, the man himself was electrifying, and the crowd were in raptures.
Momentum like that would always be hard to maintain for an entire show, so around the point in the gig where it dawned on those in attendance that the 20-minute breakdown flitting between drum solos, space organ funk-outs and bass jamming was actually still part of ‘Shit, Damn, Motherfucker’, it seemed we had descended into the perhaps-expected overindulgent side of things. Or, as my accompanying friend pointed out, it was also plausible that D’Angelo had just wandered off for a bit, as he was noticeable by his absence for a short while. Similarly indulgent moments of D’Angelo attempting some solo blues guitar jams upon his return also detracted from the initial, blistering energy.
But the closing section of the show, with D’Angelo sat alone at a keyboard perched on a raised platform, restored the equilibrium. He played one continuous piece, easing effortlessly in and out of numerous hits like ‘Me And Those Dreamin Eyes of Mine’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Africa’, ‘One Mo’ Gin’ and ‘Jonz in My Bonz’. With the crowd firmly in the palm of his hand, he theatrically hit the opening chords of ‘Untitled (How Does it Feel?)’, but just before he opened his mouth to sing, stood up and away from the keyboard, gazing out into the crowd and looking playfully nonchalant. He sat down moments later and picked straight back up where he left off, and needless to say, the crowd sing-a-long that ensued was deafening.