My ideal D’Angelo concert would be about four or five hours long; he would perform every single song he has ever recorded, all full versions, he would bring out Erykah Badu for their stunning cover of “Your Precious Love”, The Roots for the OG “Break You Off”, “The ‘Notic” and “Geto Heaven” with Common on the assist, Raphael Saadiq would make an appearance for “Be Here”, he’d even bust out “Talk Shit 2 Ya”, and the rest of the set would be full of covers, taking other artists’ originals and turning them into seductive, soulful, and funky grooves, made possible only by this supremely talented artist. In other words, I have very unrealistic expectations when it comes to D’Angelo, which is why I approached this Sydney Opera House show with both anxiety and joy; joy because I never thought I’d get another chance to see him live after he was out here in 2014 for Soulfest, and anxiety because, while I love Black Messiah, D’Angelo seems like one of those artists who doesn’t really delve into his older material beyond the hits.
It didn’t bode well for my anxiety that D’Angelo was over an hour late to the stage, a wait made tolerable only by sole support Captain Franco (of Halfway Crooks) who hit all the right beats with his DJ set, filling the Concert Hall with everything from Anthony Hamilton and Jaheim to A Tribe Called Quest and SWV. Forced to extend his playlist, Franco gave us a seemingly unending blend of perfect choices, teasing out the soul of Sydney and inspiring more than a few people to jump out of their seat and start grooving well before the main act.
Stylish and slightly odd, D’Angelo appeared sporting a pitch-black feather vest and a doo rag underneath a brimmed hat, I was too ecstatic to notice that his superstar band, The Vaguard, had started playing Voodoo highlight “Devil’s Pie”. “He’ll abandon it at the last minute and segue into something else”, I pessimistically told myself once I realised what was happening. Nope. To my surprise the classic was given a full performance, Rocco Palladino (son of Pino) slapping the bassline hard while a bold rock version pimped the original’s deep hip hop drums and shaped it into a truly brilliant opener, one which slid smoothly into a cover of Funkdaelic’s “Red Hot Mama”, giving not only D’Angelo, but the whole band a chance to really highlight how well they work together.
Last time he was in Sydney, fans disappointingly witnessed a frustrated D’Angelo who suffered from poor sound and the burdens of an outdoor stage; he was even so angry that he left the stage without giving the fans “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. This setting couldn’t have been more different; though he was criminally late to the stage, D looked to be in high spirits, resulting in an infectious energy as he would pull out dance moves perfectly in-sync with the band, strutting back and forth and shaking fans’ hands with a big smile on his face. If D’Angelo’s tour in 2014 was the artist getting back on his feet, this tour is him standing tall, loud, and proud with a confidence and on-stage presence that could rival that of close comparison Prince, a man who had just played the same venue a few weeks prior.
Another surprise inclusion was “Feel Like Makin’ Love”, a Roberta Flack cover which appeared on Voodoo. Instead of J Dilla’s neat package of handclaps and drums, there was another distinctly rock edge used to re-tool the cover, making it work perfectly for the Concert Hall, bringing it in-line with following Black Messiah songs “Really Love” and “The Charade”. The former was a dreamy moment which saw a few couples slow-dancing around the aisles to a beautiful Spanish guitar, while the latter was more a socio-political call-to-arms (or fists, to be exact) with D’Angelo encouraging everyone to raise their fists in the air to show solidarity with people around the world, a powerful moment driven by guitarist Jesse Johnson who helped D carry his urgent delivery around the hall before joining him and fellow guitarist Isaiah Sharkey in a crunchy triple-threat axe-off that was ostentatious but still felt completely necessary, continuing the trend of extending these songs into big, drawn out pieces, making full use of the talents of each musician on stage.
Classic “Brown Sugar” (sadly the only cut from his debut) made a very welcome appearance halfway through the set, thankfully – like Devil’s Pie – not abandoned for the sake of a medley and given an extended performance, reworking the jazzy neo-soul number into an ambient stunner with inflections of funk and rock pushing their way through D’s half-rapped delivery.
Significant space was reserved for a lengthy performance of both parts of “Back to the Future”, a playful moment which saw D’Angelo and his band members dancing around the stage before turning up the intensity with a stadium-fitted cover of Prince’s “She’s Always in my Hair”, sticking close to the D’Angelo version which popped up years ago – strangely enough – on the soundtrack for Scream 2.
Now in a blue brimmed hat, D’Angelo returned to the stage without his band, looking lonely in that single beam of golden lean which reflected off the piano at which he sat. I could see half a smirk form on his face as he looked up into the crowd, that turning into a wide smile as D’Angelo violently struck the keys, shaping into a booming melody of “One More ‘Gin”, which he performed in full at Soulfest, but this time instead watching if we’d sing it for him, right before abandoning the piece and suddenly playing the first instantly recognisable note of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”.
This fully fleshed out rendition of Untitled was a masterclass of seduction; graceful and elegant, with D’Angelo slowly slipping away from the piano and towards the mic, holding it close before The Vanguard came back to help him deliver this baby-maker to the Concert Hall. It was a special moment, first taking the form of a silky piano ballad and then a dramatic neo-soul set, building up to a vigorous use of D’Angelo’s funky James Brown like screams, balanced with that penetrating Curtis Mayfield like falsetto which was lashed with funky licks from the band. It was a concert in itself, and in nine months time, lives will be traced right back to that performance.
Rather than swooning, D’Angelo wanted to leave us dancing so he closed with a breathless two-hitter of “Left & Right” and “Chicken Grease”, both Voodoo cuts and two of the funkiest songs he has ever recorded. The omission of Method Man & Redman from the former allowed The Vanguard to turn “Left & Right” into a seamless funk spectacular, which continued on with a grand live version of “Chicken Grease”.
From the second D’Angelo hit the stage the whole venue was out of their seats and grooving to his otherworldly voice, not once sitting down, sticking with the band and volleying the energy that was thrown from the stage and spread throughout the Concert Hall. This was a bucketlist moment, and I can only hope that we see it again at some point in the future.
Red Hot Mama (Funkadelic Cover)
Feel Like Makin’ Love
Back to the Future (Parts I & II)
She’s Always in my Hair
Untitled (How Does It Feel) (with One Mo’ Gin Intro)
Left & Right
D’Angelo will perform two sets at this week’s Bluesfest.
Images shot for Sydney Opera House by Prudence Upton.