There are only a handful of musicians that I can say I’d blindly buy anything they put out and D’Angelo definitely tops that list. Returning from a short jaunt overseas, D’Angelo and his band, The Vanguard, rolled into town on Sunday evening to play the historic Forest Hills Stadium, and you best believe I was in attendance.
Getting the night off to a rousing start was Australian soul singer, Meg Mac. Having recently been exposed to her music, namely the stirring “Roll Up Your Sleeves,” I was really excited to see her perform. She brought her impressive vocal chops to the table in spades, winning over the crowd before her set was over. Another crowd pleaser was her cover of Bill Withers’ classic “Grandma’s Hands,” which she did total justice to. As she sang I totally understood why D’Angelo personally selected her to join him on his tour. While she didn’t address the crowd much during her time onstage, I’m looking forward to following her rise to stardom.
As the clouds churned and darkened overhead, Gary Clark Jr. took the stage with little fanfare. I’ve never seen his performance either and he also delivered. As two enthusiastic ladies abandoned their front row seats to get a closer look, I focused my attention on Gary’s impressive guitar work and bluesy sound. Having played alongside greats Eric Clapton, B.B. King, John Mayer and Buddy Guy, his performance took the crowd by storm, both figuratively and literally, when a quarter of the way through his set, the storm clouds opened up and drenched the entire stadium, sending us all running for cover, and the music to a grinding halt. Ten minutes later with the stage cleared of all the water and the sun shining as brilliant as a dream, Gary and his band returned to the stage and finished what they started, not missing a single beat.
Finally, one by one members of The Vanguard took the stage. Jesse Johnston strutted onstage with a glittering guitar in hand. Chris “Daddy” Dave bounded up and sat at his drum kit. Isaiah Sharkey stood in place with his guitar in hand while Jermaine Holmes and Charles “Red” Middleton stood at their microphones. Kendra Foster floated out in gorgeous lace embellished dress, all smiles. Keyon Harrold, Kenneth Whalum and Cleo “Pookie” Sample took their places up on a large platform behind the keys. Pino Palladino was missing from the stage, but in his place stood his 23-year-old son, Rocco. After a few minutes, the man of the hour, D’Angelo, sashayed onto the stage in a customized Commes des Garçons trench, his brimmed hat cocked to one side, and a personalized guitar equally as glittery as Jesse’s.
Getting right to work with “Ain’t That Easy,” D’Angelo and The Vanguard laid down a groove that was so impossibly deep, the other photographers covering the show around me couldn’t help but groove along as well. The songs morphed into extended jams that made our usual 3 song limit stretch feel more like 10. Behind me the crowd erupted into shrieks, handclaps and sang along word for word. A song I hadn’t heard “Betray My Heart” earned a lot of love from the audience, with D’ and the band making heart symbols and gesturing with their hands during the chorus. “Spanish Joint,” a Voodoo track that has rarely been played live was finally unfurled in all its glory and it was impeccable. “Really Love” saw couples holding hands and embracing, while “Brown Sugar” took on a whole new life and had everyone dancing up and down the aisles.
Stopping momentarily to acknowledge Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and other incidents involving racial violence before launching into “The Charade,” the crowd sang the well-known words “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk” back to him loud and clear, with everyone ending the song with fists held high in the air.
D’Angelo and The Vanguard have an acute synergy onstage that I alternate between thinking it is as equal or better than what he once had with his former band, The Soultronics. With Chris “Daddy” Dave executing intricate drum patterns, Cleo “Pookie” Sample tapping out a graceful melody, Kendra, “Red” and Jermaine filling in their vocal flourishes, to Jesse pouring on his “chicken grease,” the band is flawless, and it seemingly stems from the love of the music and the artistic integrity to bring vision to reality. With D’Angelo baring his soul through his voice, The Vanguard does the same through their instruments, culminating in a cohesive, urgent and palpable experience. When you come to a show like this, you begin to understand the painstaking effort and meticulous tinkering it takes to bring something like this to fruition. Everything is planned out; from the James Brown like “hit me!” calls and eager response from the band, to the costume changes and style that D’ brings to the table. This is all by design. It puts me in the mind of the greats, like the aforementioned James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Prince and Marvin Gaye, where shows like this were dubbed an immersive experience. But it’s never overdone, never too far left or right. It’s right in the pocket.
Leaving the stage for a short break, the band returned for just one encore, their set unfortunately shortened by the rain. “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” and “Untitled” were the selections, and when the latter started, people literally climbed out of their seats, over the rows in front of them trying anything they could to get within arms reach of D’. A man next to me yelled out “FUCK!” in pure jubilation at finally hearing this song live. Women screamed shamelessly and a sea of cell phones lit up swayed back and forth behind me. Switching gears from running back and forth, jumping up and down to stalking back and forth and kneeling to touch hands with the people in the front row was effortless for him and had everyone eating up his every word and movement. Not one inch of that stage was left untouched until one by one The Vanguard left the stage, leaving D’ alone, singing from behind his keyboard, responding to the crowd singing “how does it feel?” with “feels so good.”
When the lights came up no one cared about the 14 year hiatus, the legal troubles, if “he still looks like the ‘Untitled’ video” anymore. D’Angelo and The Vanguard put on one of the most incredible shows that completely blew everyone’s minds and left us all wanting more. Lucky for us, D’Angelo confirmed he’s always well into working on a companion piece to Black Messiah so that wait won’t be too long.
Article: Lesley Keller