When D’Angelo last visited Oakland in the spring of 2000, he was steaming from the deafening acclaim given to Voodoo, and the impact of his glistening naked torso in the “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Backed by a troupe that featured drummer Questlove and producer James Poyser, he thrilled a sold-out crowd at the Paramount Theater, but his burgeoning sex symbol status nearly overshadowed a masterful performance.
A little over 15 years later, D’Angelo returned to downtown Oakland’s Fox Theater for the first night of his U.S. tour in support of his lionized comeback album, Black Messiah. (Much of the audience arrived late after watching their hometown favorite Golden State Warriors lose a heartbreaker in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, and so they missed an opening set by promising Australian singer-songwriter Meg Mac.) This time, he didn’t strip off his shirt, instead opting for a series of modestly effective costume changes to complement his black T-shirt, pants and boots, like an assembly of hats, particularly a stylish white fedora, as well as a mud-and-lime colored trench coat and a white-ringed black shawl. His formerly glorious beefcake chest may have dissipated under time and age, but it wasn’t forgotten, if the frequently delighted squeals from women in the audience were any indication.
Backed by the 10-piece Vanguard, D’Angelo and his singers – P-Funk veteran Kendra Foster, Jermaine Holmes and Charles “Red” Middleton – took the stage with their arms raised in the air, paying homage to the icon “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” before launching into a feverish 12-minute rendition of “Ain’t That Easy.” The saxophonist and trumpeter piped wailed like the JBs’ Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. (Frustratingly, but perhaps due to a first-show mistake, D’Angelo didn’t individually introduce the members of his band.) D’Angelo frequently alternated between strumming a guitar, vamping on a keyboard and strutting in the center of the stage while seemingly nodding directions to his musicians. During the intro to “Really Love,” Foster performed a dazzling interpretative ballet. Meanwhile, veteran bassist Pino Palladino added a bottom that pulsed underneath like a heartbeat.
From James Brown to Prince, D’Angelo’s inspirations are still easy to spot. The heavy Prince influence isn’t as strong as in years past, but he still tends to scream at key moments just like the Purple One. During an extended rendition of “Back to the Future Pt. 1,” he and the band interspersed a melodies from Sly & the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” as they chanted “Gangsta funk! Gangsta boogie!”
Yet D’Angelo worked the crowd with aplomb, and an earthy cool that was uniquely his own. For the dirge-like funk rock churn of “The Charade,” his Black Messiah tribute to black men killed by law enforcement, he said, “We’re gonna do this for Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and a lot of others that we don’t know the names of. This is for us.” Then he lightened the mood with by going back to his first hit, “Brown Sugar.” “Where are all my brown sugars at?” he asked as the ladies screamed and folks sparked their joints. Later, in apparent reference to Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” he and the Vanguard chanted, “Freddie’s dead! No he ain’t!”
He played nearly all of Black Messiah and left no room for past favorites like “Lady,” “Cruisin’,” “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” “Send It On” and “Devil’s Pie.” No one seemed to mind as he chose to stick to call-and-response funk rave-ups like “Left, Right” and “Chicken Grease.” However, he wisely closed the two-hour set with his best-loved song. Fifteen years ago, he’d end his performances of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” by suffusing himself in Purple Rain lights. This time, there was blood red backlighting, an exhausted but ecstatic room cheering him on, and a vision of D’Angelo at the piano, still here after all these years, a soul icon in his own right.