In 1991, a 16-year-old kid from Virginia named Michael Archer took the stage at Harlem's Apollo Theater. He was there to compete for a cash prize in the venue's famously tough Amateur Night contest – and he won, three nights in a row. Few audience members had come on purpose to see him, but they must have known they were witnessing something special.
On Saturday night, that same singer – now known to millions as D'Angelo – returned to the Apollo for his first-ever headlining gig there. This, too, was a high-stakes performance. It's been just over a month since D'Angelo returned from a long, self-imposed exile with his brilliant Black Messiah. Fans know him as a mysterious genius, a once-in-a-generation auteur – someone who's not quite of this world. We've all heard the album. We love it. But is he really back?
D'Angelo answered that question at the Apollo with a resounding yes. He took the darkened stage alone at 8:30 p.m. and began reciting Black Messiah's "Prayer." A backlit silhouette, his face hidden, D'Angelo raised his muscular arms in a gesture that could have been humble supplication or proud victory. "Do you believe?" he asked. "Do you believe in love?"
What followed was more than just another one of the warm-up shows and festival gigs that D'Angelo has been playing on and off for the last three years. For more than two hours, he gave a master class in soul, from the psychedelic fight music of "1000 Deaths" to the tender caresses of "Really Love" to the sublime hurt of "The Charade." He grooved across the stage, clapping, snapping his fingers, dipping from the sacred to the profane. He was full of grace. He was having fun. His voice alone was a wonder: one minute a soft falling-angel falsetto, the next a wild yowl of ecstatic pain.
D'Angelo shared the stage with eight backing musicians, including a horn section and elite players like bassist Pino Palladino, guitarist Jesse Johnson and backing vocalist Kendra Foster. He synced up with them in ways that placed him in a lineage of charismatic bandleaders from Prince to Sly Stone back to James Brown, whose spirit is never far from the Apollo's wings. Together they brought Black Messiah to life in all its lush complexity. Older songs were just as vivid: When D'Angelo put down his electric guitar and sat behind a keyboard for the heartfelt pleas of "One Mo' Gin," from his 2000 masterpiece Voodoo, or came back out front for the joyful strut of 1995's "Brown Sugar," it was a reminder of what we missed all those years.
D'Angelo saved his best-known hit for the very end of the show. After two encores, including superlative extended jams on the new album's "Back to the Future" and "Til' It's Done (Tutu)," the opening riff of 2000's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" rippled through the house, and attendees who had begun streaming toward the exits ran frantically back to their seats. D'Angelo let his backing vocalists do the heavy lifting on the first few choruses, taking it easy, allowing the tension to build. One by one, the other musicians left the stage, until he was by himself at the keyboard, playing the familiar chords with no accompaniment. Then he began to sing – really sing – the chorus of the song that, more than any other, made him a superstar and sent him fleeing from the spotlight. "How does it feel?" It was a raw, real, incredibly powerful moment. It sounded like redemption.
"Ain't That Easy"
"Feel Like Makin' Love"
"One Mo' Gin"
"Back to the Future (Part I and II)"
"Til It's Done (Tutu)"
"Untitled (How Does it Feel)"