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Neo soul icon D’Angelo captivates eclectic House of Blues crowd

African American Music appreciation month

Lauren Carter | 6/10/2013, 12:21 p.m.
Some artists need slick marketing campaigns and smoke and mirrors effects to succeed. Others thrive based solely on raw talent. ...
D’Angelo performing at Brixton Academy in London, 2012. Phil Sheard

— Some artists need slick marketing campaigns and smoke and mirrors effects to succeed. Others thrive based solely on raw talent. D’Angelo falls into the latter category. At the House of Blues last Tuesday, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist dubbed “R&B Jesus” staged a rousing 85-minute show that likely qualified as a religious experience for those in attendance.

The venue wasn’t sold out, and there was no one hanging off the rafters. But the eclectic crowd — which ranged from frat boys and urban professionals to middle-aged truck drivers — hung on D’Angelo’s every word and swayed to his seven-piece band’s every beat. New songs were as enthusiastically received as familiar ones, and unpredictable interludes were more interesting than well-worn choruses. It wasn’t so much about running through a string of familiar hits, but creating a unique, in-the-moment experience. A call of “Where all my beautiful ladies at?” before he launched into “Lady” was about the only cliche element of the show.

Although D’Angelo disappeared from the spotlight and reportedly struggled with drug addiction after releasing two critically acclaimed studio albums — 1995’s “Brown Sugar” and 2000’s “Voodoo” — his voice sounded pitch perfect last Tuesday, ranging from an almost superhuman smoothness in his lower register to a honey falsetto. He opened with “Left & Right,” “Brown Sugar” and his cover of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” wielding a sparkly black guitar. He and his band alternately channeled the aesthetic of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic and Prince and the Revolution, spanning funk, soul, blues, R&B and for a brief moment, salsa.

Along with hits like “Devil’s Pie,” the set included a trio of new songs, including the Prince-esque “The Charade” and the jazz-tinged “Really Love,” which would have been at home on The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart.”

D’Angelo’s loose-fitting, layered black gear topped off by a bandana and derby hat had him looking like a post-apocalyptic refugee, and it spoke to a physique that may not be quite as taut as the one he showed off during the infamous "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" video.

But he still oozed sex appeal, and during the live rendition of “Untitled,” he teased the audience by stepping out from behind his piano and contemplating whether he was going to emulate the video and disrobe. Males and females alike screamed desperately as D’Angelo stood rubbing his hands together, apparently deep in thought. Ultimately he returned to the piano to finish the song — clothing intact — but the fervor spoke to the spell D’Angelo places on audiences, a kind of rapture that transcends music.

In an age of studio trickery and manufactured artists, D’Angelo represents a musician who was born to perform, one who commands crowds and juggles instruments with a passion that seems to spring from his soul, and his decade-long retreat from music hasn’t changed that. D’Angelo’s genius feels as much spiritual as musical, and it’s something that has to be witnessed live to be fully grasped.