How did long-lost soul star D'Angelo fare in Prince's house?

JON BREAM | Updated 6/24/2013

Teaming with Questlove, he laid down some cool grooves but didn't summon his full powers until Minneapolis musicians joined in.

D'Angelo at First Avenue

One guy onstage Sunday night at First Avenue has always been recognizable by his hair. The other guy onstage has always been recognizable by his body. Well, not anymore.
 
With his signature oversized, parted Afro and hair pick, that was unmistakably Questlove on the drums. But the fellow on keyboards, with his familiar short braided hair, looked a lot thicker than D’Angelo, whose chiseled torso was made famous in the video for 2000’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).
 
Like Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, 39, is a revered but reclusive neo-soul star from the 1990s and early ‘00s who has been missing in action for a decade. Like Hill, when she came to First Avenue in 2011 for a rare concert, D’Angelo was tardy hitting the stage Sunday. And a little tentative.
 
Well, this wasn’t an actual gig, per se; rather, as Questlove explained at the start, two kindred musicians jamming on some favorite tunes as they often do in the recording studio to get inspiration.
 
Was the nearly two-hour session inspiring? At times, especially when three of Minneapolis’ finest musicians joined in for the final encore. But this was mostly a cool show for musicheads, not for casual D’Angelo fans. This was for those music geeks who appreciate D’Angelo’s higher abilities on the keyboards and Questlove’s mastery at keeping a funky groove on drums. There were moments of vocal passion but not enough consistent excitement to declare that D’Angelo is back and in touring form.
 
No, the long-lost soul star — he’s not released a record since touring behind 2000’s Grammy-winning “Voodoo,” and he’s been to rehab three times since then — may have done about two-dozen comeback concerts last year in Europe and the United States. But he seemed to be working out, not working on Sunday. (First Avenue was the second of three D’Angelo/Questlove gigs booked this year.) It was like watching two prize fighters spar, knowing the moves that other would make and how to react to them.
 
This wasn’t as fascinating as watching Prince rehearse a new drummer with his NPG band in January at the tiny Dakota Jazz Club. But that was about the vocal-free instrumental interplay between multiple musicians in front of 275 people. The D’Angelo/Questlove duo, billed as Brothers in Arms, was more like a pressure-free, informal jam that happened to be in front of a sell-out crowd of 1,600 fans.
 
There was never mention of a new album (due in the fall) or that "Really Love," which the singer performed, was a new single.
 
With ease, D’Angelo glided from his warm mid-range to his sexy falsetto, from his Sly Stone tease to his Prince playfulness. But, singing mostly covers of favorite R&B songs by Sly, Prince and the Ohio Players, he seldom mustered the sexy passion that made him a soul idol. And, anchored behind the keys, he eschewed the kind of showmanship that could seduce a theater full of swooning women. Moreover, he spent most of the night mired in a mid-tempo to ballad groove, which diminished the entertainment value.
 
At the end of Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair,” D’Angelo engaged in some passionate, improvised vocal riffing, building to an ecstatic scream. And he finally summoned his full vocal powers on his own hit 1996 “Lady,” one of the few fully realized numbers on which the vocal intensity matched the musical intensity.
 
Finally picking up the tempo, D’Angelo blossomed on the encore of Terence Trent D’Arby’s 1988 smash “Wishing Well,” providing as much joy and thrills as D’Arby did himself on that very stage in ’95. But D’Angelo and Questlove know that First Avenue is Prince’s house. So they had to close with something from the Purple repertoire.
 
They invited some “legendary luminaries from Minnesota” (Questlove’s words, since he did almost all the talking onstage) — longtime Prince saxophonist Eric Leeds and bassist/singer Paul Peterson, and later Mint Condition frontman Stokley Williams — for “Mutiny,” a tune Prince penned for his 1985 side project fronted by Peterson, the Family.
 
Suddenly, with these extra players, D’Angelo was transformed into a performer, not just an introverted keyboardist lost in his own groove. He clearly relished Leed’s expressive sax (though he was startled when Leeds later played D’Angelo’s keys). Peterson contributed funky lead vocals and a classic Minneapolis Sound bass line. But it was Williams’ scatted trumpet sounds that propelled the proceedings into overdrive. D’Angelo was up dancing, shouting instructions to the band and getting buck wild — just like old times.
 
Sunday’s set list:
Brown Sugar/ Go Back 2 That Thing/ Let Me Have It All (Sly Stone)/ I Found My Smile Again/ Africa Talks To You The Asphalt Jungle (Sly Stone)/ Fantastic (Slum Village)/ ??? / Pop Life (Prince)/ Our Love Has Died (Ohio Players)/ The Root/ Really Love (new D’Angelo single)/ She’s Always in My Hair (Prince)/ ???/ Africa/ ENCORE Lady/ Back and Forth ENCORE 2 Wishing Well (Terence Trent D’Arby)/ Mutiny (the Family)
 
[Photo: Jeff Wheeler]