The intimate show, billed “Brothers at Arms,” had all the feelings of a homecoming, or maybe a time machine
“It’s been a long-time coming,” Questlove told the sold-out crowd at Philadeliphia’s Theater of the Living Arts late Wednesday night, a few songs into his two-man show with D’Angelo. That wasn’t exactly true: The pair performed a similar set together a few months ago at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl, and D’Angelo played a comeback gig at last year’s Made in America festival in Philly. Nonetheless, the intimate show, billed “Brothers at Arms,” had all the feelings of a homecoming, or maybe a time machine: Questlove, who called himself Philly’s “first son,” and D’Angelo sounding like it was 2000 all over again, when the two combined to record the seminal album "Voodoo."
In the years since, D’Angelo went into self-imposed exile, struggling with substance abuse, weight gain and legal problems, before finally emerging with some prominent shows last year. But at TLA, that lost decade was easy to forget: D’Angelo, who mostly sang while seated behind four stacked keyboards, sounded as limber as ever, jumping from smoky mid-range to milky falsetto to raspy Sunday-morning shouts with increasing agility as the night flew by. The keyboards-and-drum combo sounded surprisingly muscular, with D’Angelo thumping out subsonic basslines with his left hand and alternating between a Rhodes organ, Yahama keyboard or Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler with his right, while Quest cracked rim shots and sang backup vocals. Even D’Angelo’s wardrobe didn’t show any signs of age: Like in the "Voodoo" days, he was wearing a black leather vest and his signature black bandana over cornrows.
The show, which began nearly two hours after the 11 p.m. door time, started with D and Quest playing the jazzy groove to Gang Starr’s 1992 underground hip-hop classic “Ex Girl to the Next Girl,” which soon morphed into a remix to D’Angelo’s 1995 debut single, “Brown Sugar.” The seamless leaps and bounds through eras and genres continued from there: Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 “You Caught Me Smilin’,” Prince’s 1985 “Pop Life,” and even “Fantastic” by Slum Village, the underappreciated rap trio that included the late rapper-producer J. Dilla, who also worked on "Voodoo." It was like a mixtape tribute honoring the sounds and styles that formed the foundation of the pair’s music, for a city that’s long been a soul (and neo-soul) capital itself. "We definitely want to pay respect to the greats," Quest said.
In fact, Quest did most of talking. D’Angelo addressed the crowd in between songs just once, asking, “How y’all doing?” and receiving a wave of loud cheers in response. He seemed to wink at his long hiatus with a cover the S.O.S’ Band’s 1983 hit “Tell Me If You Still Care.” The crowd’s eager singalong more than answered him.
“Give it up,” Quest said on the mic later in the set. “Let’s this motherfucker know he's loved.”
D’Angelo truly came out of his shell after the audience loudly demanded an encore. Quest’s Roots bandmates -- keyboardist James Poyser, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas, and bassist Mark Kelley -- joined them onstage, and D’Angelo finally emerged from behind his protective wall of keyboards to stand up front and center, performing an amped-up take on 1995 fan favorite “Lady.” Looking back, the whole set seemed like a warm-up to this highlight, which in many ways was fitting: the show was the prelude to a much bigger event, the third annual 4th of July Jam, a free outdoor concert on Philly’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway that featured The Roots, Jill Scott, John Mayer, Hunter Hayes, and others. And of course, further down the line is D’Angelo’s third album, produced by Quest, who’s been saying in interviews it’s nearly finished for more than a year now.
"The album’s almost done, yadda-yadda-yadda. First single, yadda-yadda,” Quest joked at TLA. “But he's too shy to do it.” “Really Love,” a breezy song that’s been circulating online for the past couple years, was the only new material they played.
But at the end of the show, with a smile on his face, one hand in the air, and the other slapping palms with screaming front-row fans, D’Angelo looked like he was finally ready.