(Rolling Stone) -- An impossibly high-pitched "aaahh" ascended from a churchy organ vamp, proclaiming D'Angelo's arrival on the biggest stage he has played since his legendary Voodoo tour. Clad in rugged boots, leather vest and trademark tanktop (all black), he appeared with a perfect confidence and poise that belied his recently broken 12-year hiatus from the stage.
His performance at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans has been anticipated as D'Angelo's American comeback, but the reclusive R&B polymath has been unfolding a cautious return. It began this January with a short European club tour, which confirmed that he hadn't lost an ounce of mojo. He also added a batch of new songs to his repertoire. The Essence show was the first U.S. gig on the books, but he warmed up to his big night by jamming covers with "co-pilot" ?uestlove at Bonnaroo, playing a new song on TV for the BET Awards, and running through a full set -- a dress rehearsal of sorts -- on the 4th of July at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.
So come Essence Fest, D'Angelo and his band of virtuoso studio pros (including Pino Palladino on bass and Chris "Daddy" Dave on the drums) were locked in tight. They articulated every breathy, rhythmic nuance from D'Angelo's distinctive palate. One song instantly became another when D'Angelo clutched his fist -- classic stage magic he picked up from his idols, or "yodas," as he calls them. The frequent falsetto yelps -- "good God!" -- suggested the night's yoda du jour was James Brown, although his side-by-side guitar solos with Jesse Johnson (from the Time) found D playing at Prince as well.
D'Angelo coolly picked along to "Playa Playa" on guitar and sang a breezy take on Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love," embellished by the lush harmonies of his powerhouse backup vocalists. A new song known as "Ain't That Easy" followed, featuring a chunky bass riff that gave way to some of D's most accessible melodies. He's so comfortable playing the new material that it's easy to hear the songs as centerpieces of future shows.
He ditched the guitar for "Devil's Pie," which freed up his body to muscularly saunter about the stage and viciously headbang with dynamo vocalist Kendra Foster. A sturdy "Chicken Grease" led into the gentle "Really Love," an unreleased song that ?uestlove leaked on Australian radio back in 2007, which featured D's high-flying, taught falsetto accompanied by smooth guitar licks. The 70-minute festival set was brief for D's shows, so many of the grooves were abbreviated. Yet one song that got completely deconstructed and jammed back together was "S**t, Damn, Motherf***er." The pleading opening verse was the band's most intense, raw moment. As the song revved up, D and his singers stalked around the stage in a frenzy, resulting in some toppled drums.
Despite the spike in energy onstage, much of the crowd remained politely subdued. D'Angelo's set came between Trey Songz and Charlie Wilson, both of whom quickly had the mostly female, mostly adult Essence attendees on their feet. After Songz' saccharine crooning, D'Angelo sounded downright unruly, almost abrasive. R&B is a nebulous descriptor, but D'Angelo's funk and soul abstractions highlighted how his approach to the genre is distinct from the festival's other acts.
Still, he has one undeniable number, and it successfully ensnared the audience. Solo on piano, he abruptly banged out the opening chord to "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," and the energy in the Superdome immediately focused into a deafening flurry of screams. He stopped playing, stood up, shook his head, then flashed a cheeky grin. In perfect time, he gracefully returned to his infamous mega-hit, played beautifully and stripped bare. "Untitled" provided the crowd nostalgic pleasure that doubled as a gateway into the richness of D'Angelo's prodigious talents, if maybe a few songs too late. A well-timed "Lady" broke the slow jam spell, and he closed out with his superb new funk thumper, "Sugah Daddy." He rode his new groove until the show's close, screaming, wailing, and frantically conducting the band's final notes.
As the heir-apparent to practically every iconic soul singer, the pressure to finish his third studio album and get back on the road has been markedly high, but his solid performance on the big stage proves he has yet to flinch. The comeback will continue later this summer when D'Angelo tours with Mary J. Blige, Essence's Saturday headliner. Just before D's set, Blige commented on the upcoming tour to Rolling Stone, saying "I felt like it would be refreshing and fun for people to see him and Mary J. Blige on the road together." Their tour will make 20 stops in August.
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