Live Review: D’Angelo and The Vanguard at the Hammersmith Apollo

This might be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. Mainly because I know that try as I might, I can never adequately put down in words the experience of being at D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s show last Friday night at the Hammersmith Apollo. Certainly not as good as Jason King did for NPR, that’s for sure. His trip to the show in Harlem was a revisit of his youth 20 years ago, when Brown Sugar was first released and permeated the corners of 125th st and beyond.

But though I lack more than two decades in age and thus musical knowledge and experience than King, I like to think I felt it just as much. D’Angelo’s music — these 15, 20 year old albums and now Black Messiah — has continued its powerful effect over time on R&B and hip hop fans whatever their age. I know this because the couple in their 60s next to me bellowed and whistled just as heartily as the yoga teacher on my other side who flailed her arms to the groove. Music like this speaks to all.

The lights came down shortly before nine and in this incredible, excited energy—of fans who saw him play recently to ones that haven’t in 15 years—D’Angelo stood stage centre blanketed in darkness as Prayer plays fiercely. Drummer Chris Dave snares crash like a thick metal rod hitting an iron slate. 1000 Deaths follows without pause. The lights fully come on, and every single person in the audience is on their feet, clapping, shouting, making a ruckus of ecstatic excitement.

After Ain’t That Easy, he introduces his band: the legendary Welsh bassist Pino Palladino, co-writer of over half of the songs on the album Kendra Foster, guitarist Jesse Johnson and Isiah Sharkey, keyboardist Cleo “Pookie” Sample, the aforementioned drummer and two backup vocals.

Seamlessly, the band plays an intro that hints at an uptempo version of Feel Like Makin Love and D asks with a sly smile, “Do y’all know this one?” Women in the crowd audibly sigh. He shows his fans love by taking time clasping each hand that reaches up, and even jumping off stage to join the front-rowers during a extended edit of One Mo’ Gin.

The gravity of Black Messiah dawns on me as I watch the seasoned instrumentalist of the band play through tracks on the album, all perfectly in sync and often at D’Angelo’s hand signals, whose own piano and guitar performances are without a flaw. It is a sound of their own which embodies elements of funk, rock’n’roll, soul, metal and RnB, amplified by D’Angelo’s James Brown-esque stage presence, but in his own sexy way as he he slides down the microphone stand and rips off his jacket from time to time.

As Brown Sugar plays, he asks the ladies in the crowd to join his coo of “su-u-gah-h-h”. But when he asked the men to sing “I want some of your brown sugar” it was quiet as if nobody dared drown out his soul-vibrating voice.

The encore grooves through Left & Right and Chicken Grease, followed by the finale—a 15-minute long Untitled (How Does It Feel). None of us ever wanted it to end. Each band member quietly takes a bow and walks off the stage, leaving D’Angelo on his own as he sings at the piano the last few moments of the song, just him and us. All of sudden I felt at one with the rest of the fans, with King, with the band, with him.

This goes beyond the days where you put Shit, Damn, Motherfucker on when you’re feeling sub-par, unenthused about life and D’s voice moves your soul and makes it all okay. This was an understanding and appreciation of what he went through in the past 20 years, both as a human with personal grief and as a musician taking in new music, and the powerful, beautiful gift he sends on because of it.

Words: Grace Wang

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