D’Angelo treated his fans with borderline cruelty by making them wait nearly 15 years for his Black Messiah album, but in many ways New Yorkers had it worst.
Since he first began emerging from musical hibernation in 2012, he’s done full-fledged tours of both Europe and the States — but skipped NYC. And although he’s performed within city limits three times in those years, two shows were sloppy covers-heavy sets, and one was a roof-raising but tantalizingly brief two-song romp at the 2013 “Music of Prince” tribute concert at Carnegie Hall. There was even a live Q&A session back in May. But New York hadn’t seen a proper D’Angelo concert since his transcendent Voodoo tour hit Radio City Music Hall in March of 2000.
Well, as he did with Black Messiah, D’Angelo made sure Saturday night’s (Feb. 7) concert at the legendary Apollo Theater was damn near worth the wait. Not only was it the very first date of his “Second Coming” tour (which kicks off a European run on Thursday before coming back to the States in March); and not only is the 1,500-seat Apollo one of the city’s most intimate and sonically satisfying theaters. It was also the site of the then-16-year-old Michael Archer’s first New York performance, when he won one of the venues’ famed Amateur Nights in 1991, long before anyone knew him as D’Angelo.
And from the moment he walked onto the dimly lit stage alone Saturday night — sporting a leather jacket, wide-brimmed hat and long scarf — and performed the first two verses of “Prayer” solo before being joined by his band, D’Angelo showed that while he’s now 40 years old and many pounds heavier, he’s lost none of the charisma and vocal agility that made him a star in the first place.
By the second song, “Ain’t That Easy,” the hat and the jacket were gone and the band hit cruising altitude. It may have been opening night, but this was no warm-up show: Many of the songs in the Black Messiah-heavy set were being performed live for the first time, yet as they showed on Saturday Night Live last weekend, the Vanguard — his monstrously tight 10-piece ensemble featuring virtuoso bassist Pino Palladino and ex-Time guitarist Jesse Johnson — had them on lock.
Still, the set was less about rendering the album versions faithfully than taking the songs for joyrides that stretched for seven to 10 minutes without ever getting dull or losing focus. D’Angelo is a masterful bandleader: he’s studied his Prince and James Brown videos diligently, and (like them) he treats the band like a toy he’s endlessly delighted with.
The musicians watch him like hawks, following his every fist pump and flick of the hand, changing up the groove so fluidly that it often wasn’t clear where one song ended and another began (the printed set lists on the stage were full of arrows and unreleased instrumentals dubbed “interludes” and “themes”). Several of the older songs — five total from Voodoo, three from his 1995 debut Brown Sugar — were overhauled: “Feel Like Making Love” had a harder, funkier rhythm; “Lady” was urgent and driving.
Yet as loose and funky as the Vanguard is, they’re all virtuoso players: Johnson and rhythm guitarist Isaiah Sharkey interwove their guitar parts like latticework; the backing singers recreated and elaborated on the album’s intricate vocal arrangements.
Yet there was never any question whose show it was. D’Angelo is such a captivating performer and so clearly loves working a crowd that it’s baffling he could stay away for as long as he did. He was in his element on the Apollo stage, shaking hands with audience members, sitting at the edge of the stage, calling for clap-alongs on almost every song. He playfully gave “Sugah Daddy,” which closed the main set, multiple false endings, teasing the crowd with lines like, “I think I might need to stop there, I know we’re over the time limit,” halting the band before shouting another guttural “good God!” and launching back into the song.
The show passed the two-hour mark during the second encore, which saw the new album’s “Till It’s Done” stretched out into a long vamp that even included a short solo from razor-sharp drummer Chris Dave, which unexpectedly shifted into the slow, opening drumbeat of D’Angelo’s biggest hit, 2000’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).”
He stretched out the song far beyond its album length, leading the crowd in a singalong, shaking hands with virtually the entire front row. He finally settled behind the piano and continued the song as each bandmember left the stage, one at a time, until the set ended as it began, with D’Angelo alone. It was a theatrical yet unpretentious ending to a show that saw this remarkable performer, against all odds, picking up where he left off nearly 15 years ago.
Here’s the set list from D’Angelo’s Feb. 7 concert at the Apollo Theater:
“A Thousand Deaths”
“Ain’t That Easy”
“Feel Like Makin’ Love”
Claire Fisher Interlude
“Back to the Future”
“Left and Right”
“Chicken Grease/What It Do”
“Till It’s Done”
“Untitled (How Does It Feel)”