Of the thousand-plus people who filled the Apollo Theater for D’Angelo’s set Saturday night, February 7, a good ten of them will likely never wash their hands again.
The front row at the Apollo was privy to not only a fantastic view of the elusive r&b crooner for his much-anticipated return to the stage, but his direct affection as well: D’Angelo spent a hefty portion of his two-and-a-half hour set extending himself over the divide between his stage and the outstretched hands of his adoring public, making contact with as many audience members as he could while working through the tracklist of Black Messiah and selections from his adored catalog. Last week’s Saturday Night Live performance had D’Angelo rolling through “Really Love” and “Charade” squarely behind the microphone and unapproachable, but the distance effected by ceremony and broadcast television wasn’t there at the Apollo. D’Angelo showed up in Harlem ready to get intimate, and you can’t get close to someone without touching them, without caressing them, without entwining your fingers with theirs. And while it was a given that many would be moved by Black Messiah and the sultry notes brought into being by D’Angelo and the Vanguard, the extent to which he’d touch the crowd surpassed expectations.
The last time D’Angelo rubbed the Tree of Hope backstage at the Apollo — a good-luck tradition every artist honors when they hit that hallowed stage — came about twenty years ago for a taping of Showtime at the Apollo. It was five years before 2000’s Voodoo turned him into an r&b icon. Before that, D’Angelo was an amateur-night contestant there in 1991, and the Richmond native used his winnings to buy musical equipment that he’d use to record 1995’s Brown Sugar, his debut album.
The joy for his lauded return was palpable as D’Angelo and the Vanguard strolled out to their respective spots, with the man of the hour taking his time to get to the mic and begin with a “Prayer.” From there, the Vanguard — which boasts the stunning Kendra Foster on backing vocals, renowned bassist Pino Palladino, and Prince collaborator Jesse Johnson on lead guitar — moved not as a band of able musicians, but an immaculate machine, one whose every note, step, sway, and beat was reflected in the raised fists and exceptional riffs of its parts.
Roving for eye contact and the next strong note to ride, D’Angelo alternated between his guitar and the mic as his primary vehicle throughout the set, his dance breaks and fingers mimicking whichever line stood out to him at that particular moment. If he wasn’t playing guitar, he was playing air guitar; he lost himself in a piano-led breakdown more than once, his fingers plinking on imaginary keys. The tracks of Black Messiah made for the foundation of the setlist, with “Charade” a notable high point, but the throwbacks — “Brown Sugar,” “Left & Right,” and “Lady,” which brought about the best air-guitar diversion of all — were what brought the Apollo to climax repeatedly, with shrieks and screams and blissful, familiar cries.
The finale made for an appropriate close to the evening, with the Vanguard making short work of every passing chorus of “How Does It Feel.” They savored each note, each low, each summit reached by D’Angelo’s falsetto. As the minutes passed, each member of the Vanguard offered a beautiful sign-off solo before taking a bow and walking offstage, leaving D’Angelo at the piano, alone, for the final measures of his most successful single. The lights dimmed as D’Angelo’s fingers found the keys, and while the ovation had subsided and given way to an awestruck silence, the singer was just as close to the crowd behind the piano as he was moments before with his hand clutching theirs.
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