We’re spending the afternoon catching up on some past work that has fallen through the …
D’Angelo’s excellent latest album Black Messiah arrived both by surprise and at the perfect time. It’s usually hyperbole for a culture writer to say that any kind of art is ever “needed” by the general public, but in America’s current atmosphere– one of ever-increasing awareness of police brutality and the strife and fear it causes within several communities, one where African Americans of all ages feel (rightfully so) that the “To Serve & Protect” written on the side of cop cars is a laughable slogan that feels more like a slap in the face than an ethos– Black Messiah felt necessary. Whereas Kendrick Lamar’s similar-in-theme To Pimp A Butterfly feels like an angry call to arms, Black Messiah sent its message through the silky smooth, effortless-sounding blend of R&B, funk and soul that made D’Angelo such a transfixing talent on Brown Sugar (1995) and Voodoo (2000). Every electric second of the instant classic record, which was released early in response to the racially charged events in Ferguson and elsewhere, felt like it was worth the almost 15-year wait, and I personally began counting the minutes until I could catch this show live. Fast forward eight months, and my sky high expectations were utterly blown away at the Crystal Ballroom Sunday night.
Having disappeared (for the most part) from public life after the video for Voodoo‘s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” made him an unwilling sex symbol, years of silence and trouble followed D’Angelo. Arrests, stints in rehab all feed various rumors about the artist, it was easy to forgive someone who might think D’Angelo was headed towards a Sly Stone-esque disappearance from creating music. It’s clear after the benediction bestowed upon the audience Sunday that such worries were very, very premature. Sensual and funky, soulful and poignant, the blistering hot set featured everything you can want from not only a D’Angelo show, but a concert in general. D’s backing band The Vanguard is absurdly talented- you may have already assumed this, as I did, but let me say again: his band is absurdly talented. The ease with which the band traverses deep soul, southern-fried funk (and Minneapolis funk, and every other kind of funk), jazz and even rock sounds is almost preposterous. The level of interplay between D’Angelo and his band, whether harmonizing both dance moves and vocals, dropping into sweaty and intense soul-funk grooves or toying with the audience by stopping on a dime only to restart the song after a few breathless seconds, was remarkable.
As for the audience’s reaction, I’ve never seen the “floating” dance floor at the Crystal so filled with joyously writhing bodies, and I couldn’t help but feel the magic floating from the stage was so good it suddenly turned us all into magnificent dancers. Any fears D’Angelo had about returning to public life and performing seem to have been quelled by the unanimously exuberant reaction to both the record and tour. I don’t think there was a song that wasn’t jammed out to over ten minutes long, and each time the attentive crowd reacted to a dance move or a high note, and D’Angelo’s already ecstatic smile would only get bigger.
The only somber note of the Black Messiah-filled set came when D’Angelo asked the crowd to raise their fists for places like Ferguson and folks like Michael Brown, and every member of the audience I could see followed suit. Instead of hurting the red hot momentum of the set however, it only served to make people groove that much harder, as we were all there celebrating life for those who had there’s taken from them unjustly. And that, to me, is the genius of both Black Messiah and this tour: undoubtedly things are fucked up and need to be changed this very second, but D’Angelo’s brand of protest involves using his art to remind people that we’re not so different when the lights go down. We all want justice, we all want love and we all want to boogie.
Nights like Sunday exist to remind us of the possibilities in an, if not ideal, than at least a just America; one where every person is afforded equal rights and isn’t subjected to Draconian, blatantly racist policies. These rare nights also serve as a reminder that it’s up to us to make the requisite changes to our culture, or harmonious evenings such this may one may increasingly become rarer and rarer. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait 15 more years for the next D’Angelo album and tour, the country needs this kind of passionate and affecting art as much as ever.
Photos by Caitlin Webb, check out the full gallery below: