If, like me, you were among the generation of music-savvy teens in the late 90s who analysed album sleeve notes for production credits and could spot a sample in a heartbeat, then you probably welcomed the arrival of “neo soul” with open arms. This progressive genre and its experimental mesh of classic soul, funk, et. al wasn’t mundane like the whiny R&B that prevailed at the time (“bump and grind” anyone?) and would ultimately be defined by the music of a certain Michael ‘D’Angelo’ Archer.
This church-reared multi-instrumentalist presented Brown Sugar in 1995, a ground-breaking debut not only because it sounded remarkable, but the mastermind behind those complex piano chords, that Rick James-inspired double-entrendre (“I gets high off your love, I don’t know how to behave”) and buttery falsetto was not long out of his teens. The young buck then took a break to follow-up with the Grammy-winning Voodoo five years later in 2000, and just as musos had more reason to celebrate the singer’s musical genius (and distinct references to Jimi Hendrix, Fela Kuti, Marvin Gaye and Prince), the risqué video for the song Untitled earned him a new fanbase more inspired by his pecs, leading to a suspected breakdown over his new pinup status (or so his buddy Questlove said recently) and a 12 year absence from the limelight, except for a few dodgy run-ins with the law and the odd musical cameo for artists like Q-Tip, Common, Raphael Saadiq and Mark Ronson.
So, much credit has been laid on the singer for his ability to randomly re-appear this year for an 11-date European tour – without so much as an EP to justify the hiatus – and remind all who attended why he’s earned his acclaim, and that he’s evolved into an artist with more depth and dimensions a lesser fan might be surprised to see. Performing with a nine-piece band named “The Testimony”, he looks great – if not over-styled in eyeliner and a gothic “All Saints” get-up – sounds great, and after over a decade away, keeps things creative by avoiding the simple route of delivering his classics and calling it a day. Like a true musician with a jazz heritage, songs are remixed, funked up, taken to church and rocked out – with a nearly 20-minute version of Sh*t, Damn, Motherf****r being the erratic centrepiece of the show. This, of course, doesn’t make it the easiest of gigs (critics might write it off as a near 3-hour jam session with a few moments of magnificence and very little, albeit friendly small talk) , but nor does it make it a terrible one. Instead, D’Angelo presents a solid display of a musical prowess reminiscent of Prince (one minute he’s jamming on the guitar, the next he’s killing it on the keys – and his vocal range is beyond supreme), and new songs from a rumoured album like Another Life, The Charade and Sugar Daddy are performed brilliantly and in full, while fan faves like Brown Sugar, One Mo’ Gin, Spanish Joint and Untitled are crammed together in a quick melody, that obviously goes down a treat.
Friday’s crowd might have felt robbed by the fact that the 37-year-old failed to play the original Brown Sugar (or even his hit Lady), so seeing as both made brief appearances the next night, a remixed version of the former makes for a truly raucous, and well-received finale for his brief spell in capital. But reviews have been mixed (one friend in particular called Friday night “good but mediocre”) and while some might say this tour has nothing on his 2000 gigs in the same venue, what it does confirm is that D’Angelo hasn’t let the passage of time work against him; rather, it’s seen him mature into a more funkier artist who’s clearly got his groove back. (Words: Matilda Egere-Cooper)