By Sam Bleazard
Emerging in a wide brimmed hat into the darkness, to the sounds of his new “Black Messiah” material, after a fifteen year wait for a full European tour here he is…and he’s early by some show standards taking to the stage at 8.30.
Hiatus or not, there is no lack of confidence on display here as a grinning D’Angelo drops new songs “ain’t that easy” and “1000 deaths” which pound out across the halls and stalls of Hammersmith.
The Friday night crowd are delighted to see him, but like his last two albums initially this seems like it might be a slow burner of an evening.
He dips into his first album briefly, which strange to say it, is actually twenty years old now, re-arranging the upbeat “Alright”. We are also treated to the smouldering OneMo’gin from the Voodoo album, which gets a very warm reception from a seemingly knowledgeable crowd.
To all intents and purposes the D’Angelo I saw at the turn of the millennium in Brixton hasn’t changed a great deal, no he’s not the athletic Adonis of yore, but yes he does still crave the considerable female attention reaching out to touch as many hands as possible throughout the show. At one stage he wanders into the crowd, where the modern phenomenon of people no longer wanting to touch and hug artists exists, having been replaced by endless selfies and photo-bombing while our hero is singing his heart out. Surreal maybe, but D’Angelo seems to love every minute of it and is clearly delighted to be back after such an extended time away. As he moves through the material, old, new, borrowed and blue he has complete mastery of the show as bandleader (lest we forget he’s the son of a preacher man) and eventually has the crowd eating out of his hand.
Nowhere is the love on show more than in the hard driving funk of the middle section of the show where his well drilled band, anchored by seasoned session pro Pino Palladino on bass and ex Time member Jesse Johnson on guitar, moves effortlessly up the gears. New track Sugah Daddy swings hard in the live setting and a medley of old school tracks incorporating Curtis Mayfield’s Freddie’s Dead, James Brown & the JBs Funky Good Time and the O’Jays For the Love of Money cranks the atmosphere up a notch or two.
The show stops and starts a few times but the momentum is with the artist and his new band, which he calls the Vanguard. There are quiet moments too, “Really love” is one of those, which sees an acoustic guitar take centre stage in the mix and shows that the neo soul vocal chords have lost none of their magic in the last few years.
The crowd are treated to “Brown Sugar” early only two thirds of the way through the set, followed by ‘Voodoo’s’ “Left and Right” which both morph into extended party jams. Marshalled by James Brown-style hand signals and cues to the band – the majority in the theatre, both circle and stalls, dance throughout. Encores come and go quickly, and new anthem “Charade” is played just before the end. If there are any complaints with this show, one may be that some of the new songs are quite dense and not that easy to follow with a full band trying to interpret their complex beats and cluttered soundscapes from the studio recording. These are minor gripes however as it was virtually impossible not to be pulled along by the infectious enthusiasm of an artist really enjoying working a crowd again, and getting the most from his band.
The ending of the show was clever, and something of a master stroke, as D’Angelo closed proceedings with “Untitled (How does it feel)”. It’s tentative at first, like the track itself, but eventually it soars into life with impassioned howls and screams towards the end. Before we’re done, D’Angelo sits at the piano as one by one his band sign off and bid farewell to the closing refrain of ‘how does it feel?’. It feels like a question, and the the crowds response is undoubtedly, euphoric. Everyone in attendance seems glad they came.
As we walked out to t-shirt sellers and a jerk chicken bbq which had sprung up outside the venue, the sound of people excitedly chattering into the cold night air no doubt went on for some time to come.
D’Angelo is back on the scene and London was delighted to host the celebration.