Mas­ter of soul says it all in song

D’An­gelo chan­nels past icons while re­main­ing orig­i­nal and sear­ingly rel­e­vant.


The mas­ter­ful soul singer D’An­gelo didn’t have much to say be­tween songs dur­ing his eu­phoric Mon­day night set at Club Nokia. He of­fered no ser­mons on jus­tice, didn’t foot­note the mes­sages on his new al­bum, “Black Mes­siah,” had lit­tle time for ban­ter.

No men­tion of the Fer­gu­son sum­mer, the death of Eric Gar­ner, the week­end’s McKin­ney, Texas, pool party upload or any of the re­cent video-recorded con­fronta­tions be­tween po­lice and un­armed cit­i­zens.

D’An­gelo’s ac­tions and mu­sic, though, spoke vol­umes. De­liv­ered as they were by a bril­liantly prac­ticed band of horns, gui­tars, back­ing vo­cals, key­boards, lap­tops and rhythms, the poses were as po­tent as pipe bombs.

As the band rolled into its open­ing song, “Ain’t That Easy,” singers held up their arms in the “hands up, don’t shoot” stance. Dur­ing “The Cha­rade,” D’An­gelo, 41, per­formed in a black hoodie while singing pre­cisely crafted lines about fu­til­ity and frus­tra­tion.

“Crawl­ing through a sys­tem­atic maze to demise, pain in our eyes,” he sang, the Vanguard band mov­ing through a thick, quick-tempo groove made pro­pel­lent by hand claps and a me­an­der­ing bass line, made weird by a cu­ri­ous gui­tar melody. “Strain of drown­ing,

wad­ing through the lies / Degra­da­tion so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries.”

At the end of the song, band mem­bers raised their fists in a black-power salute, mod­ern-day Olympians us­ing their plat­form to protest, fo­ment, of­fer some kind of de­liv­er­ance.

With a lubri­cated loose­ness, the artist drew on James Brown 1970s power funk, Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic’s mus­cu­lar en­ergy, Fela Kuti’s ridicu­lous brass bursts, the smooth Mem­phis soul of Al Green and Prince’s well-honed rest­less­ness.

Never de­riv­a­tive, D’An­gelo of­fered a con­tem­po­rary take on a time­less strand of Amer­i­can mu­sic. Com­po­si­tions re­lied less on hooks and cho­ruses than tec­tonic shifts in mood, the band roam­ing through in­her­ited in­no­va­tions while adding ofthe-mo­ment ur­gency.

That they ac­com­plished this in a venue so crowded that many had to crane their necks added to the ex­cite­ment — though it also sug­gested that this show should have been at a big­ger venue.

The Vir­ginia-born son of a min­is­ter, who rose in the late-’90s as part of a so­called neo-soul move­ment, sang of pure love and the tin­gle of de­sire in rich falsetto on “Re­ally Love.”

In “Back to the Fu­ture (Pt. 1),” he won­dered on van­ish­ing time while the trum­pet and sax­o­phone punc­tu­ated the sub­tle groove with the oc­ca­sional melodic el­lipses. Dur­ing an in­stru­men­tal break there and else­where, the artist and his singers moved through loosely choreographed moves like the Pips on Quaaludes.

Through­out both new work and songs from 2000’s “Voodoo” and his 1995 de­but, “Brown Sugar,” he merged the pri­vate and the po­lit­i­cal, ex­plored in con­fi­dent tenor his decade away from the mu­sic busi­ness and the lessons that he learned.

This tour, which will re­turn to Los An­ge­les for the FYF Fes­ti­val in Au­gust, is trav­el­ing across the coun­try over the next month.

Gritty, re­lent­less and mo­men­tous, his mu­si­cal pla­toon was so locked on their leader’s move­ments that when he counted off mea­sures James Brown-style, the band shot forth a se­ries of one- and two-note bursts that re­peat­edly struck the beat’s bull’s-eye.

He or­dered and the band blasted with pre­ci­sion. I could be wrong on the num­ber — the mo­ment was too charged to make com­plete sense of — but at the end of “Su­gah Daddy” I’m pretty sure he com­manded 45 beats. The Vanguard im­me­di­ately rolled through a se­ries in rapid-fire suc­ces­sion, then stop­ping as if hit­ting a brick wall.

Through­out the night the crowd too re­acted on cue, of­fer­ing stutter-step hand claps at D’An­gelo’s be­hest, singing in uni­son the line, “How does it feel?”

As a mu­sic freak too young to have seen James Brown, Sly & the Fam­ily Stone or Funkadelic in their primes, I’ve long won­dered how it would have felt to wit­ness that brand of real-time ex­u­ber­ance, ex­pe­ri­ence such a uniquely Amer­i­can ex­pres­sion of mu­si­cal im­mer­sion, ride the prover­bial moth­er­ship. Now I know.

Dur­ing the sec­ond of two en­cores, the artist moved into “Un­ti­tled (How Does It Feel),” the song that made him fa­mous (and de­sirous) in 2000.

“How does it feel?” he won­dered with sub­lime sen­su­al­ity, a wide-brimmed blue hat tipped side­ways on his head, washes of brass, per­cus­sion and voices sur­round­ing him. He and the band re­peated it softly — “How does it feel?”

The mu­si­cians con­tin­ued ask­ing the ques­tion as, one by one, they ex­ited the stage, un­til D’An­gelo was alone, seated be­hind his key­board, key­ing chords. “How does it feel?”

Mon­day night it felt sub­lime. It felt nec­es­sary, cru­cial, fu­eled by the kind of en­ergy re­quired of the times. It felt thrilling to wit­ness an artist not only ris­ing to the oc­ca­sion but also over­whelm­ing it.

Lawrence K. Ho


Club Nokia, D’An­gelo en­cap­su­lates an en­ergy re­quired of tur­bu­lent times us­ing just his mu­sic, with no lec­tur­ing or ser­mo­niz­ing from the stage.

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