For years, D’Angelo’s talents disappeared into the vast wasteland that also claimed Lauryn Hill for a spell.
Seemingly unable to deal with the fame and celebrity that followed his 1995 debut, “Brown Sugar” and a few years later, the spellbinding “Voodoo,” the Richmond, Va., native vanished from public view, resurfacing occasionally with a new mug shot for drunk driving and drug possession and looking as opposite as humanly possible from the chiseled hunk who sent ladies’ hearts pounding in the “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” video.
But on Tuesday night at three-quarters- full Chastain Park Amphitheatre, D’Angelo made it known immediately that he is back, and he’s not messing around.
Heading to the stage from the mid-point of the venue, a black fedora cocked sideways on his head, D immediately strapped on a bejeweled black guitar, delving into the serious funk of “Left & Right” from 2000’s “Voodoo.”
In the past, D’ Angelo’s live shows were legendary, a steaming stew of funk, rock and nasty grooves.
He made an admirable – albeit abbreviated – return to form with his six-piece band and four backup singers, calling out to the semi-interested crowd, “Where my brown sugars at?” before sliding into a loose and fluid take on the song that named his first album.
Throughout his hour-long set, D’Angelo reminded how his songs aren’t always traditionally coherent, but bursts of lyrics delivered over unshakable grooves born from listening to a lot of James Brown, P-Funk and Prince.
His voice frequently escalated from a murmur to his patented falsetto, which, thankfully, is still completely intact.
While some material, such as the new “Another Life” from his upcoming album (tentatively called “James River,” release date perpetually TBA), would have played better in a club or theater without the usual Chastain distractions, clusters of fans were still mesmerized at the sight of D perched behind an electric piano, crooning the shimmery ballad that echoed The Fifth Dimension in design.
As incense smoke swirled around his head like a halo, D plinked the first notes of “Untitled,” eliciting massive screaming from the females in the venue. He stood up, arms folded in a beefy criss-cross, and gave a smile before returning to his piano.
But D’Angelo, 38, looked happiest when cranking up the funk, as he did during “Chicken Grease” when he had the audience shake their fingertips in the air to the song’s rhythm – a movement that looked ridiculous coming from anyone but D or his band members, but a unique method of interaction.
His set- closing “Sugar Daddy,” the new tune he debuted on the BET Awards last month, was stacked with starts and stops, yowls and yelps and even a few mic stand tricks from D’Angelo.
He seemed to relish leading his band through the sweaty musical workout, proclaiming midway through the epic jam, “I ain’t done yet!”
Let’s hope he meant that for real.
Speaking of real, Ms. Mary J. Blige, the uncontested Queen of Hip-Hop Soul and headliner on this Liberation Tour, turned out an authentic 90-minute workout of her own, starting with a cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.”
Looking fierce in red shorts, thigh-high boots and unmoving blond hair, Blige crept across the stage like a caterpillar during the crisp beat of “Family Affair,” a slew of frantic lights and illuminated panels taking care of the onstage atmosphere.
Blige unapologetically speaks to women – a point she made early her show by telling the guys, “All respect to you, but I am a woman and I can only relate to the women” – and conveys her messages emphatically. “Enough Cryin’” featured a passionate, hand-waving rap, while “Good Woman Down” inspired Blige to fall into Springsteen-like preacher mode.
Even when she allowed the audience to reminisce, as on the still-fresh-sounding “Real Love” or 1997’s “Everything,” with its wonderful samples of “Sukiyaki” by A Taste of Honey (or, technically, Kyu Sakamoto) and “You Are Everything” by The Stylistics, Blige’s intense edge never softened.
She exhausts herself emotionally and vocally – especially, Tuesday, on the coda to “Not Gon’ Cry” and during “Empty Prayers,” which she sang on her knees – and her powerful voice remains an impressive force.
Blige changed costumes a couple of times during the set, leaving her tight five-piece band to fill in the gaps, and when she arrived in a black dress and bare feet, she told the crowd that the dress had a special meaning, to “show how much we’ve grown together.”
It’s doubtful any of Blige’s worshipful followers would have cared if she came out in her favorite attire of jeans, or, as she did later, a white bodysuit with leopard boots – a fitting visual complement to the fiery “No More Drama.”
Blige, who spent some of her formative years in Richmond Hill, Ga., before moving back to New York, is a survivor and a continued influence in R&B. But most importantly, she continues to speak to her fans.
(See our gallery for more photos from last night’s show.)