by Shannon Jay
I arrived at the NorVa, welcomed by an empty stage just vacated by opener Meg Mack. From the floor to the VIP balcony, the joint was packed tight in anticipation for a rare sight. Within the past 20 years, D’Angelo had only released 3 albums and toured once for each. Anticipation was swirled with the feeling of fortune as the crowd waited for Michael Eugene Archer.
And wait they did, for over an hour. Most of the time was taken up preparing the myriad of instruments for his extensive and impressive back-up band, the Vanguard. The stage was littered with acoustic & electric guitars, keyboards & pianos, trumpets & saxophones, and a drumset with a custom spiral-cut cymbals. The rest of the time was spent building suspense, staring at a prepped stage that was ready to rock. While waiting, the crowd was graced with a soundtrack of beats by J. Dilla, an ode to the music legend and D’Angelo’s former collaborator.
Finally, the band emerged, immediately taking their places and beginning an extended intro of “Ain’t That Easy,” waiting for D’Angelo to join them. Loud cheers ignited the crowd when he casually walked on stage. He donned a large velvet hat, floor-length knit coat, and one wicked looking electric guitar – one of several glamorous outfit and guitar pairings of the night.
The opening track was one of several singles played from “Black Messiah,” D’Angelo’s critically acclaimed and highly anticipated album – his first in over 15 years. “Really Love” was introduced masterfully by guitarist Isaiah Sharkey, who stole the stage and romanced audiences with his flawless Spanish-style playing.
Before playing the album’s activism anthem “The Charade,” D’Angelo took a moment to ask everyone to raise a fist, dedicating the track to the lives lost in Charleston, SC the previous week. Lights illuminated as the hundreds of raised arms, which remained in the air & bumped to the beat as the band begin to play.
D’Angelo’s carefully curated back-up band added an exciting new dimension to the show. Dancer and back-up singer Kendra Foster illustrated the band’s melodies through movement in an artful yet playful way, sometimes stealing center stage from her right-hand corner. The band’s chemistry was a joy to spectate, skillfully milking songs with extended solos and seamlessly improvised jam sessions that lead one song into another.
The hardest, longest, and funkiest session of the night was during “Chicken Grease” from the encore. After countless minutes of wailing on guitars and horns, the band exited the stage and half of the audience left. Those who stayed noticed the house lights had not yet illuminated, indicating the jamming was not done.
Sure enough, D’Angelo & The Vanguard trickled back on stage to a more intimate, but still roaring, crowd. The second encore ended with possibly the most anticipated track of the night, D’Angelo’s biggest hit single “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” This time around, he kept his clothes on, but still played with our hearts by walking up to the mic once the melody came along and false starting three too many times. D’Angelo fed off suspense, and once his silky vocals started singing the 90s hit, ladies were practically sent to their knees.
D’Angelo put his multi-instrumentalism to work and stepped from behind the piano, repeatedly asking the audience, “how does it feel?” With each repetition of the iconic line, band members one by one headed backstage. Eventually, the audience was alone with Michael, the man we all came to see, playing us the song that made most of us fans in the first place.
Over the past 20 years and three albums, we’ve seen D’Angelo transform from sexy and soulful R&B to funky and jammin’ afro rock ‘n roll. This set was a perfect summary of all these years and all these albums, with the final song of the night bringing it all back home – a place D’Angelo said he was happy to be when he finally said goodbye.