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D’Angelo - Hammersmith Apollo, London 21/02/15

25 February 2015, 10:00 | Written by Jack Dutton

When D’Angelo dropped his third album Black Messiah at the end of last year it took many by surprise. This was an artist who – for many complicated reasons – had not released an LP in 14 years. Following the release of his esteemed second record Voodoo, D’Angelo took an unwanted post as a sex symbol and things took a downward spiral – the singer reportedly developed a drinking problem and the follow up to Voodoo, originally slated for a 2004 release, was scrapped. Things got worse; D’Angelo was arrested for drugs possession, his girlfriend left him and he was caught in a near fatal car accident. As well as this, a close friend of his, Fred Jordan took his own life.

Save a few unfinished demos, the only official new material we heard from D’Angelo was the odd cameo with the likes of J Dilla, Common and Q-Tip, but that changed when Black Messiah arrived mid-December last year. Playing it in London for the first time, D’Angelo brought an updated version of his band The Vanguard with him to Hammersmith Apollo – including Jesse Woods Johnson on guitar. Woods had previously worked with Prince under “The Time” moniker and had music featured in the film Purple Rain. Along with this, there were three backing singers, a bassist, a drummer, another guitarist, a keyboard player and, of course, his own ability to slay on several instruments.

The stage descended into darkness as D’Angelo emerged. He stood alone, opening with “Prayer”. The band then appeared, playing a dirty funk guitar while militant vocal samples echoed off the walls of the Apollo. After what we all think is the end of the track, D’Angelo holds his hands up in a Messiah position. With the lack of stage light still masking his face, the soul singer stood still, his trilby in the darkness making him look like the man in The Mask going through a second coming. The audience gradually gets louder and louder. When the crowd has reached the height of its crescendo, the music then clatters back in, perfectly on time.

A pitched-up “Feel Like Makin’ Love” follows, a version that sounding far more organic than Roberta Flack’s original. “Brown Sugar” sounds as sweet live as its title implies; making it hard to believe that it’s now 20 years old. The swelling bass line of “Alright” was slowed down for more sultry effect, while “The Charade” saw The Vanguard transform into a heavy rock band.

What made the night was the stupefying performance of the first single of Black Messiah “Sugah Daddy”. Its infectious snappy soul claps, outrageous horns and silly piano tinkers got everyone in the room shuffling. In the sea of happy faces, there was one person who stood out because they weren’t dancing or smiling at all. You could only pity them.

D’Angelo finished with the last track off Voodoo, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”. The song, arguably his most intimate, is a cosmic slowed-down ode to love that fuses together elements of soul and gospel. It sounded glorious, coming to an end slowly, with each member of the band retiring after four bars of the refrain. First it was the drummer, then the backing singers, then the guitarists and then the bassist until it was D’Angelo singing and on the piano alone, finishing the show as he started. It was an ineffaceable performance by a truly gifted musician and a triumphant return.

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