D’Angelo and The Vanguard. Ogden Theatre. 06.10.15
Late night conversations about music were not uncommon when I lived in San Francisco. Sometimes these conversations would turn into arguments. Take a love of music, add a bottle of Jameson whiskey, a double shot of ego and ice. Shake well. Scrape all pragmatism off the top and overserve. Words were wasted as they merged with dead brain cells…going up in smoke before ever fulfilling their purpose. We would all speak over each other until the only people who could follow our conversations were those who weren’t a part of them. Most of the content was forgotten by the time the sun punished us for our sins. One of those conversations has always stuck with me though. I don’t remember the context, but one of my friends blurted out that D’Angelo was one of the best shows he’d ever seen. He then went on to say that the R&B singer (turned recluse) was once slated to be the next Prince. I believe my response was “that naked dude from that one video?” I know that sounds ignorant now, but I didn’t know anything about D’Angelo back then. I was listening to a lot of punk in ’95 and a lot of Radiohead in ’00. Brown Sugar and Voodoo didn’t even exist in my world. D’Angelo could have been one of the members of Jodeci for all I knew.
I know better now. When Black Messiah dropped from the sky like a dirty bomb in late 2014, reducing every premature year-end list to irrelevant words on blog, I did my homework. I learned about D’Angelo’s collapse under the pressure of his newfound fame. His sex symbol status was just too much for him to take back in 2000. The man who had literally exposed himself to the world, turned his back on that world in favor of darkness. Drugs and alcohol fueled his all-to-common fall from grace. But instead of becoming a media fixture of failure, D’Angelo disappeared almost completely. After many years went by, people stopped speculating on when the next album might come. D’Angelo seemed to be another ‘what could’ve been’ footnote in a century that was on the fast track to becoming ancient history. But like a superhero who only comes out of his super-secret hideout in times of need, D’Angelo decided he couldn’t stay quiet against the deafening rally cries of those who felt they were being unjustly treated by a police force with seemingly unlimited power to detain, abuse, beat…and even kill with impunity.
Trayvon Martin was killed by a security guard. Eric Garner was choked to death by the police. Michael Brown’s shooting sparked the civil unrest in Ferguson. D’Angelo could not avoided these stories. And he decided he had something to say about them. So Black Messiah was born. Written almost entirely by D’Angelo himself, the album is extremely political and finds D’ backed by an incredible band of musicians who go by The Vanguard. The album is deeply layered and combines elements of rock, funk, jazz and even gospel. Those who were hoping for another ‘baby making’ soundtrack were probably severely disappointed (or at least surprised) by what they heard, but the album was a huge success…garnering critical and popular praise in very diverse circles. The album was anything but accessible, so it’s a testament to the content that it was so well received. Black Messiah turned out to be well worth the wait for the fans who never thought it would come. And for me, it was one of the best albums of 2014, even if I couldn’t personally relate to the politics within its tracks. It also prompted me to do my homework into the artist behind the album — the artist who just might prove himself to be the next Prince after all.
All that being said, I was still hesitate to buy $89.00 tickets for a show at the Ogden. I’d seen footage of D’Angelo performing some European dates. I’d also seen him perform the late night television spots. He seemed like a true professional who somehow came back at the top of his game, but still…$89.00? The obsessive in me couldn’t turn down a chance to see someone of his status though, so there we were, watching the growing crowd fill every inch of the floor below us from our perfect balcony seats while Australia’s Meg Mac warmed things up with a short set. Friends who had seen the show in Oakland were adamant that D’Angelo is one of the best performers ever, but anticipation is a killer, so I tried to keep expectations at bay in order to not let myself be disappointed. I quickly realized how naive I had been. D’Angelo followed the 10-piece Vanguard onto the stage and cracked the set wide open with “Ain’t That Easy”. The performance was equally moving, humbling and powerful. My expectations were no match for D’Angelo or The Vanguard. They weren’t even half way through the song when I was convinced that it was going to be one of the best shows I had ever attended.
Before the show had started I made a comment about how I didn’t know if a D’Angelo performance would make me want to riot or make babies. It was a joke at the time. I didn’t really expect to have those contradictory feelings. Especially the urge to riot. I won’t get too far into my own politics here, but I will say that although I am completely against police brutally (and murder), I am not of the mindset that all police are evil and should be removed from society. I also don’t believe riots are the best way to invoke change. I’m not sure D’Angelo feels that way either, but something about how he brought “The Charade” to life last night, with the almost impossible build-up, and the pleading (yet threatening) chorus “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk”, made me want to punish those who propagate violence against the innocent. It literally made me want to riot. But then he followed that anthem by uniting “Brown Sugar” with “Sugah Daddy” – immediately causing the temperature to rise by 30 degrees. The audience participation included the female/male coordinated cat call of “brown sugar!”/”give it to me!”, but it didn’t end there. It was at that point that all those fists that were in the air relaxed into caressing hands that made their way to the nether regions of their dancing partners.
When D’ took off his shredded trench coat, the girls went crazy. When he augmented “Betray My Heart” with sign language, the girls fell in love. When he sat down at the keyboard, everyone went silent. And when he picked up his jewel-crusted guitar, everyone lost control. D’Angelo didn’t only prove he was back last night, he proved that he is a master performer. For someone who spent so much time outside the spotlight, he couldn’t have been more graceful and at home on the stage if he had been born there. Even when shit got heavy, as it did with songs like “The Charade”, the smile never left his face. His range was insane as well. The falsetto, the howls, the screams and the deep, vibrating baritone…the call-to-action political anthems, the bedroom foreplay (and pornography), the silly euphemisms and the soul-baring ballads – he found himself in perfect control and balance through a kaleidoscope of sounds.
Pulling from cross-genre influences, picking up and putting away instruments, and still finding time to physically touch those in the front row, while touching the rest of us on a spiritual, emotional, political and musical level, the man was more than just a musician on that stage…he was a conductor. I haven’t been to many soul or R&B shows in my life, but I’ve seen Prince and I’ve seen Stevie Wonder, and as amazing as those legends are, neither of them were able to manipulate the strings quite like D’Angelo did at the Ogden. I never got to see James Brown, but I’ve heard stories, and that’s who I kept coming back to through the entire show. The way D’ would pause and have the whole band pause simultaneously, as if they could read his mind, leaving an almost unbearable silence soaked in tension, only to howl “Encore!” and have the band pick back up where they left off, allowing for a sweet release at the exact second when the pressure threatened to obliterate the entire venue. The man is an amazing singer, and a pretty great guitar and piano player, but he could have literally hummed and mumbled his way through the show and it would have still been extraordinary because of his orchestration skills…not to mention his outfits and subtle dance moves.
One thing I can’t stand, even when they are of the soul variety, is jam bands. I was frightened The Vanguard would stray too far into that territory, thus losing me somewhere back by the border, but that never happened. “Sugah Daddy” devolved into something a lot less structured, but once again D’Angelo resurrected the ghost of James Brown, making the jam session something much more than a jam. It was more like the band was on fire and D’ was dousing them with gasoline with each howl. It was quite a sight. I think it’s the first time I have seen an Ogden crowd dance non-stop through an entire set. And after all that, it ended abruptly with a “Thank you, goodnight.”
The first encore started with D’ on the keys for “Another Life”. It’s one of those smooth talking songs that harken to the late 90’s, but it is haunted by the dark years that came after. “I’m gonna touch in all of the places that please, pull you close, I wanna feel you breathe…”, but then he revealed that it wasn’t even real “Oh, in another life, I bet you were my girl.” The funky “Back to the Future Part I and II” were combined into a fun little session that slid “Left and Right” into some “Chicken Grease”. Coming as a reward to those fans who had been around since the beginning, “Chicken Grease” was extended well past its album version, and became the biggest dance party of the night.
A stupid thing happened here that I have to note. It was during the first encore, when the venue was essentially one big, sweaty, dancing mess, that the girl next to us in the balcony decided to start taking selfies. She literally took 50 of them, with a flash, and then started editing them on her gigantic phone. She then proceeded to post 3 of them on her Facebook page with the status “in the balcony at the Ogden”. Then she switched over to some other app, before going back to check if she got any Facebook likes. She did that every few seconds. She hadn’t received any likes by the time I stopped watching. Her date was dancing like a maniac behind her, having the time of his life. The woman was not a teenager. If the photos on her phones are any indication, she even had children. She was on her phone for the entirety of the first encore. I had to mention her because she is the only thing about the night that was not perfect.
We weren’t sure the second encore was going to happen. It was midnight (the time he was scheduled to end) and he was taking his sweet time backstage. But things got rolling again with “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” before D’ left the stage to The Vanguard. A drum solo led into the opening chords of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” — the song so many had been waiting for. Selfie Queen had taken her leave by this point, but her date was still there. He literally listened to the song with his back to the stage, eyes closed, slightly sobbing. He wasn’t alone in his sentiment. D’Angelo’s most famous song is also the root cause of his disappearance, so for him to come out and perform it, with the same smile he’d had on his face all night, and to perform it so damn well, was just icing on a cake that would have been the best cake in the world without any icing at all.
The song built…it peaked…it came back down…and then one-by-one The Vanguard exited the stage. D’Angelo was all alone at his keyboard, asking over and over again “how does it feel?” He already knew the answer, but he made us ask him back. We complied. This went on for a while, but not long enough. He was 2 ½ hours into his set. It was 12:30am. And all good things must come to an end. “Denver, thank you so much. Peace and love to you all.”
I have nothing invested in D’Angelo’s music. His songs don’t remind me of high school or college. They don’t remind me of an ex-girlfriend or a happy or sad time in my life. I’m not even a huge fan of funk or soul or R&B. Lyrics are one of the most important aspects of my listening pleasure and I can’t recite one song D’Angelo sings. Yet somehow he moved me in such a way that I declare last night’s concert one of the very best I have ever seen. I left the Ogden on another plane of existence. I know this review doesn’t do it justice. I just can’t find the words to explain why the show was so profound. Katherine wrote something about the ‘science of music’ when she reviewed the Ryan Adams show for this site. I don’t know anything about the science of music, but I think I witnessed ‘the science of performing’ while watching D’Angelo and The Vanguard do their thing.
I don’t remember all those late night conversations I had in San Francisco, but I will always remember the one about D’Angelo. And although I didn’t have any memories associated with his music before last night, I have one now. D’Angelo’s music will always remind me of that night in 2015 when I saw him perform at the Ogden Theatre with my wife. I’ll always remember it as one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
Ain’t That Easy
Betray My Heart
Back To The Future
Left & Right
Till It’s Done (Tutu)
Untitled (How Does It Feel)