Comeback stories are as American as baseball and apple pie. D'Angelo — the R&B singer who's had to shoulder the weight of being most-likely-to-succeed to both Marvin Gaye and Prince's legacies, not to mention sex god — performing on the 4th of July after an almost 12-year hiatus ranks up there with some of our best. But he was returning to the House of Blues' stage, site of the troubled start of his last tour, which had left him defeated and resulted in a downward spiral (alcohol, drugs, near-fatal accident, rehab, soliciting an undercover cop) from which many figured he'd never recover. This felt like a particularly meaningful victory.
Earlier this week, D'Angelo played the BET Awards. It was hailed by most in the media as fantastic, but there were a lot of flashing lights, and we couldn't tell if he still had it or everybody really desperately wanted to believe he still had it. After last night, we just blame shitty television sound and production.
He belongs in a club, first of all, probably one even smaller than House of Blues. But HOB did a fine job of replicating a jazz dive, the stage washed in red and blue lights, smokiness simulated with a fog machine. We heard D before we saw him, and while he walked onstage singing, he made a beeline for his keyboard. It was partially obscured from sight, and that felt significant. The message we took? “Listen instead of leering at my body, trying to figure out if I look like I did in the 'Untitled (How Does It Feel)' video.” (He still radiates the kind of glow that only comes from being touched by God, and that's all we're going to say about his appearance. We want no part in helping that demon of body obsession reclaim him.)
Around “Devil's Pie,” D'Angelo's vocals seemed overly padded by his backup singers. But it was wise to rely on them early in the show, because as he turned the corner into his second hour of almost nonstop singing, he was literally throwing himself into every song like it was his last, and everybody knows that's what you remember.
“The Charade,” a new song, is enough of a reason for us to look forward to the album he's working on, whenever it comes out. A quivery electric guitar lends a sort of melancholic New Wavey-ness to it and his voice slides up and down his vocal range, dipping huskily before climbing right back into his falsetto. Though all we could make out lyrically was, “At the end of the day, the charade,” it seems revealing.
Of course D'Angelo is still sexy, never more apparent than when covering Parliament's “I've Been Watching You.” “Can't take my eyes off you … from you lips to your hips … to your lips,” he rumbled, one corner of his mouth crinkling, eyes glittering, hips wriggling. One of the best moments of the night.
Finally, he was alone onstage with just his keyboard, playing snatches of his most famous songs (“Brown Sugar,” “One Mo' Gin,” “Send It On”), and at last we were able to evaluate his voice. A decade is a long time. A little rustiness is to be expected. But there is none there. It's pure and sweet. The urge to text a doubtful friend was irresistible. “He's still got it. Tearing it up.”
But it wasn't until his band rejoined him that D'Angelo really began having church. Maybe it was choreographed (preachers do rehearse), but he was indefatigable. He screamed, he danced, he faked the end of a song three, four, five times. We shouldn't have been surprised. He grew up in the Pentecostal church watching people catch the Holy Ghost and pastors cast out unrighteous spirits, so he comes by it naturally. He's been gone a long time, and we think as much as we missed him, he missed us, too. “C'mon, children, let's get free!” he shouted. Lead the way.
Personal bias: My physical copies of Brown Sugar and Voodoo are well-worn.
The crowd: The holiday made everybody even more laid-back than normal. A guy in a Coogi sweater and button-up and his librarian-looking girlfriend were making out in front of me — as they should at a D'Angelo show.
Set list below.