Better Than: Waiting two hours for Justin Bieber.
Fans were told 9. Press was told 9:30. By 9:45 the room was packed to the rafters, and as 10 o’clock, and then 10:30 passed, the tension in the room was palpable, and the whispers began spreading through the crowd… Where is D’Angelo?
A fair question, and one that each member of the sold-out crowd had reason to ask. After all, that has been the question for more than 12 years now, and the man hasn’t graced a stage in this city since the average Williamsburg resident was in middle school. Fans had reason to wonder, and more than that, reason to be concerned.
And then just before 11 pm, after a wait of more than a decade, the prodigal son returned, playing his first NYC club date in what has seemed like an eon. There have been false starts and almosts, cancelled dates and flirtatious near-misses, and more than 10 years lost to the wilderness of addiction and personal problems, and yet finally there he was, D’Angelo in all his mythologized glory, sitting behind assorted pianos on the Brooklyn Bowl stage with only longtime friend and collaborator Questlove at his side.
“Y’all waited 13 years, y’all can wait two hours,” Questlove said. “I think that’s enough. Lets go on!”
And as soon as D’Angelo and Questlove took the stage, easing into Sly and the Family Stone’s “Let Me Have It All,” it was clear that the crowd — many of whom had been waiting at the front of the stage since doors opened at a little after 6pm, trying to get close to the singer who has been out of the spotlight for so long — forgave the long wait for the man who has been so reclusive.
And as D and Q — styling themselves the Soulquestrians, from the late-90s soul-hop collective of which they both were a part — started in on their piano-beat grooves, the crowd duly responded. The duo went through a number of soul and funk tracks — like a stripped-down version of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” — which had D’Angelo groaning, yelping and pleading the lyrics to the crowd’s implicit approval. It really seemed a long-overdue coronation: a performer who had long deserved the adulation many were willing to lay upon him finally was able to bask in it, and D’Angelo certainly seemed to enjoy the experience, occasionally looking up from his keys and unleashing a sly smile and a quick burst of a falsetto scream.
It wasn’t a perfect performance of course; a two man show, especially one that was to focus on the funk and soul background of both D and Questlove, would never have the powerful effect of a full band. It was, instead, in the loose jams that the two were both able to shine. “What I wanted to do was recreate a moment, because this is the recording process of how this shit happens,” said Questlove as he walked on stage sporting a “Free Pussy Riot” t-shirt. “We’re just brothers having fun up here.”
The jams were kept at a low simmer for the majority of the set as the two worked through a series of covers, only touching briefly on D’Angelo’s solo material, such as the set-closing “Africa” off Voodoo, but the chemistry between the two erupted in a few unplanned, special moments, mostly centered around D’s confident vocals. The crowd hung on every word, as if it didn’t matter what came from the performance, positive or negative. And that seems to be the prevailing vision of D’Angelo at this point in his career: as a sort of hero, imprisoned by his own vices, one who has finally burst free from his burdens and has returned to bring hope back to the masses. It’s a narrative that certainly colors how he’s perceived these days, and that combined with the exclusivity of this show helped the performance sell out minutes after going on sale Friday morning. And even though the show lasted little more than an hour — or half as long as the packed crowd was forced to wait for their initial appearance — and contained almost none of the myriad hits many in the audience may have expected, it was hard to find anyone feeling less than rapturous as the strains of encore of “Lady” flowed forth from D’s piano.
As the show came to an end, Questlove grabbed the microphone and, sick of being the one constantly facing the media when it comes to the question of D’Angelo’s long-rumored, longer-awaited third album, addressed the topic head-on. “I’m tired of people quoting me about the record,” he said, turning to D. “Is it almost finished?”
“Yes,” said D’Angelo, sparking further rapturous applause from the crowd. But as with all things D’Angelo, it’s never been a question of whether or not the album was close to being finished, whether it was on the way, or whether it would live up to the lofty heights of his first two records. Instead, the question of when will always be on fans’ lips. Knowing D’Angelo, he’ll keep us waiting just a little bit longer.
Critical Bias: D’Angelo could’ve essentially walked out on stage and stared at his shoes for an hour and gotten a standing ovation, but it was nice to hear his vocals and piano playing live up to their lofty standards.
Random Notebook Dump: The polar bear nature documentary on Brooklyn Bowl’s video screens helped ease the two hour wait for D’Angelo — but only a bit.