Blog 1203: Ray Mann Reviews D’angelo Live in Paris, 2012

D’angelo is Back! I was fortunate enough to be able to catch the one and only R&B Jesus at one of his first live concerts in a decade. I wrote this review of the Paris show for music blog Soul of Sydney.

D’angelo ~ Live at Le Zénith, Paris 29.01.12

If by some miracle this D tour happens to make it to Australia, there are a few surprises in the show I don’t wanna spoil – but if you’re hungry enough (or you’ve already devoured the footage on YouTube), I’ve written about them at the end of this review.

First off: D is looking and sounding great. He ain’t the young, cut-from-marble sex god of the Voodoo tour anymore – and thank Christ (and I don’t just mean considering what he’s clawed his way back from to be here now). After reading for years about D’s crippling anxiety beneath the pressure of maintaining that image in those days, the vibe of this show seemed so much more relaxed. D himself was all boyish enthusiasm, and clearly as thrilled to be there as we were.

‘Playa Playa’ kicked off the show with Pink Floyd-style mystery: atmospheric light show, D nowhere to be seen onstage, and a band that sounded almost pre-recorded (strange tinny vocal sounds, drummer Chris Dave triggering samples). It worried me a little: was this gonna be a Soulquarians tribute show? Were we just being messed with?

Then the lights came up as D took the stage, wielding a guitar, and jammed with the band on a new Black Merda!-sounding joint (sorry folks, didn’t catch the title – it’s surely on YouTube already). D’s guitar rig was then whisked away by his ballboy-speedy stage crew, leaving D free to strut a little – but not too much – like the days of old.

The band’s restraint was a refresher course in how to groove without resorting to “showboating”, as Questo once put it. ‘Devil’s Pie’ crescendoed into ‘Fire’; ‘Chicken Grease’ began whisper quiet and ended up with D howling, but never needing to “heavy-up” that already incredible groove. Each song grew from quietly confident groove to super-heavy jam, and varied so much dynamically without ever degenerating into nu-metal to build “intensity” (thank gawd).

This band ain’t the Soulquarians, nor are they trying to be. But the first real display of his new band’s power was with ‘The Root’: they somehow maintained the dark, introverted mood of the song while delivering it as a party jam. Chris Dave was by now well beyond triggering anything, instead mind-bendingly delivering delayed drum sounds completely live.

New track ‘Charade’ is straight-up early Prince, and ‘Sugardaddy’ got a bit o’ that New Jack Swing some of us been missing a while. But the most interesting and subversive moment of the night was another new track, ‘I’ve Been Watchin’ U’. On the surface, it’s a dark Al Green booty song, with a solicitous D alternatively cooing and guitar-shredding. But by the time the refrain “from your lips to your hips” is imprinted on your brain, it begins sounding less like D is talking about an object of his desire, and more about himself as the object (the line echoes the camera’s gaze in the ‘Untitled’ video that made and ultimately overwhelmed him). Females in the audience are still screaming at D’s “Hey baby” even as the lyrics reveal the song’s protagonist to be not a soliticous lover but an obsessive stalker – and, aptly enough, the track leads directly into D’s original murder ballad, ‘Shit Damn Motherfucker’, this time reimagined as an epic slow waltz.

The instrumental “interlude” was the part of the show where Questlove’s absence was felt the most. Musically impressive but conceptually half-baked, the band played through a series of jams that referenced D’s influences and the tradition of Black Music he’s all about continuing – from the full band riffing on Hendrix’s ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’, down to drummer Chris Dave and original Voodoo bassist Pino Palladino’s massive-sounding interpretation of Fela Kuti’s ‘Zombie’. But where the original Questlove-directed Voodoo live show a decade earlier had been a master class of that tradition, infused from beginning to end with references to James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Fela and so many others, here instead these moments were just threads that were never tied together, so that the final effect was little more than “Here are some cats playing while D takes a break”.

Ok: The Surprises.

D’s solo voice-and-keys medley could have been the whole show. ‘Jonz…’, ‘Spanish Joint’, ‘Cruisin”, ‘Higher’, an almost-prophetic-in-hindsight ‘One Mo’ Gin’, and the biggest response of the night, ‘Untitled’, all sounded as full and groovy as the rest of the band show. D’angelo is an accomplished keyboardist with so much feel, and he’s a charming and compelling enough performer to hold you right there for as long as he wants.

For the encore, D returns with an acoustic guitar and leads the band through David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, from beginning to end: surprisingly (and thankfully), there’s no soul-funk “twist”, no deviation from the original; just a rendition by a fan (that boyish enthusiasm once again).

The nearly-two-hour show could only have ended one way: ‘Brown Sugar’ reworked via Morris Day & The Time and James Brown’s ‘The Payback’ – so much fun. What a way to top off a great night and a welcome return.

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