By Sam Bleazard
The year was 2000, the month was July and the venue was Brixton Academy…and just a few yards from the front of the stage there was a lot of female energy and excitement.
What followed was one of the great soul and funk performances, ushering in a new millennium of music, and the king of neo-soul was crowned – on the back of probably one of the greatest albums of the decade, Voodoo.
And then silence, over a decade of it…
I’d first become aware of D’Angelo during my early college days, when I’d come back from the US in 93/94 one summer a good friend of mine had a cassette of the song “Brown Sugar”. The cover photo was fairly unspectacular, a young guy with a leather jacket and caterpillar boots on, fairly standard for RnB singers in the early 90s – so I wasn’t overly excited. My friend mentioned that he was being compared to Prince and that he was starting to make waves stateside. And similarly to when I first heard Me’Shell NdegeOcello’s Plantation Lullabies or Erykah Badu for the first time, I could tell this was an artist who was going to have their own voice.
D’Angelo became essential listening, “Me and those dreamin’ eyes of mine”, “Lady”, there was no filler, and it’s fair to say that his debut album set standards, as his second would in a different way. I may not have been living in London at the time but if I had I would have made a bee-line to get to his September ’95 show at the Jazz Café. Recently released in full by EMI on import it’s worth checking out, if only to hear the young artist revel in his first attention overseas. Introduced by a clearly animated Trevor Nelson you can also hear Angie Stone in the mix as part of the band.
What’s notable is not only the warmth of the performance but also the ability to play old soul and make it sound instantly contemporary and timeless, and there’s a taste level beyond the obvious. The show kicks off with Mandrill’s funky Fencewalk and moves on to the Ohio Players “Sweet Sticky Thing”. Given that he was a newcomer it shows a confidence level of someone playing what they wanted, but also pleasing the audience in the process. It’s a great show and an insight into the talent that must have hooked music industry labels, taste-makers and press alike.
The interest level remained high in the mid to late 90s, but the recording output did not, with fans having to wait almost five years for the return. I don’t remember if I’d heard the album Voodoo by the time D’Angelo rolled into Brixton on a second wave of euphoria in 2000 but either way this was the hot ticket and everybody knew it.
Two or three things stick in my mind about the show, the opening, the determination of the many women in the audience to cram to the front and grab a piece, and the solo piano outro. Kicking off with the opening, given that he was a student of the best music that black America has produced it was inevitable D’Angelo would bring his own interpretation of a great show…and so onto a dimly lit stage came the Soulquarians. A shrouded tribute to the likes of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelicment thing.
These hooded figures created enough menace and noise to whip the audience into a heated frenzy and the sound was a vocal wall, backed by the best rhythm section, Questlove on drums, Pino Palladino on bass…and the rest is history (as was the shirt on my back as many attempted to clamber past!). D’Angelo continued the frenzy on, echoing James Brown, Al Green and others during the main part of the show, and as an encore we had a solo piano and voice finale with tracks like “Untitled (How does it feel)” leaving the audience with chills.
Why Michael Eugene Archer (his real name) chose not to put out anything significant, for the five year period following Brown Sugar, and then for a 14 year period following Voodoo may be a mystery (if you discount collaborations and the odd track for a movie along the way), but it may also be about quality control in extreme.
As Greil Marcus notes in his book Mystery Train about one of the true American musical innovators Sly Stone, and his album ‘There’s a Riot Going On’, the audience only want so much of the truth once it’s out there. It’s possible that D’Angelo feared competing against a younger version of himself, but may also have felt over-awed at the acclaim.
A brief European tour in 2012 showcased an older, slightly portlier and less energetic D’Angelo, now clad in a leather coat and hat but clearly still blessed with vocal talent, instrumental virtuosity and a sense of fun.
Speculation has bandied around for the last 2-3 years that a fabled third album was imminent, and now that album is here.
In part 2 Sam will review both D’Angelo’s latest CD Black Messiah and his live show next month at the EventIM Apollo in London. Stay tuned…