We were all here before. Rising up out of the subway onto 125th Street, it strikes me that I should come uptown to Harlem more often. The Popeye’s on 125th and St. Nicholas Avenue is still there, offering the same crispy bird parts and sodium-heavy buttermilk biscuits; it’s still the same bustling, up-til-3-a.m. refuge it always was. Vendors still hawk street literature, pamphlets and incense sticks on fold-up tables that line the sidewalks. It could just as easily be 1995. That’s when I was restless and unsettled. I spent that winter in Harlem, a half-starving student living on Morningside Drive with intermittent radiator heat and no hot water. A tall, shady woman pried open my silver mailbox door and cashed my hard-earned paychecks and a wily mouse kept finding clever ways to gorge on the peanut butter I used as trap bait without ever losing its head. I moved from place to place in Harlem before settling into a crash pad on 121st and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. The corridors were a hideous lime green and my living quarters were directly above a Baptist church where throaty gospel wailers bellowed up from the floorboards. You could glare out the window and witness the half-dead spill out of an alleged crack den. Central Harlem then was a loopy, creative, colorful, challenging place to be. That was the mid-’90s, before Web 2.0, before smartphones, before automatic software upgrades turned our computers into better, more efficient versions of themselves.
The presence of new brands-in-boxes on 125th Street, like Old Navy and Duane Reade and Red Lobster, jars me. They’re a slap in the face — this is the new Harlem. This is Mayor DeBlasio’s Harlem, the rapidly-gentrifying borough he inherited from Bloomberg, who signed, sealed and delivered the quality of life changes his predecessor Giuliani originally dreamed into existence. Out-of-towners rave about the new, more efficient New York. It’s shiny and bright, with lots to buy and more to do. Impassioned locals find the new New York —home of shady foreign investors and billion dollar real estate and immersive hotels and bone broth and hot yoga and cronuts — a lesser shadow of its former self. In the midst of the city’s upgrades, The Apollo on 125th Street remains structurally unchanged, a gleaming monument to the recalcitrant creativity of African-American people. It’s where Ella scatted, Dizzy bopped, the Nicholas Brothers tapped and Mr. Brown squalled, dipped and dived. They were all here before.
Saturday, February 7th, would have been J Dilla‘s 41st birthday. Songs from Donuts are playing in the Apollo when we walk in. Hardly anybody I talk to thinks the show will start on time. How will D’Angelo and his team recreate the dense, abstract and sometimes forbidding sound of Black Messiah? None of us know what to expect. As Stevie once philosophized by way of Chaka, soul is the unending possibility that you’ll be told something good.
The house lights come down promptly at about 8:30 p.m., and D’Angelo appears center stage, shrouded in darkness and shadow. His muffled singing suggests an incantation. He moves from “Prayer” through the grainy, pre-recorded sound of the late Khalid Muhammad riffing on Jesus into “1000 Deaths.” The second track onBlack Messiah is grimy in a good way. The groove is fist-tight and tough. The live sound in the venue is immaculate, tactile and visceral — just like the record. In retrospect, the jazzy soul-hop of Brown Sugar-era D’Angelo in 1995 was just a starting point for a much more satisfying twenty-year musical journey that few could have predicted. I hear D’Angelo’s otherworldly new music from Black Messiah as a sort of upgrade, one that emulsifies 50 years of funk and soul and rock and metal and hip-hop and gospel into a seamless whole. The constituent parts are Lakeside. Cameo. Louis Jordan. Jimi Hendrix. Ohio Players. Chic. Guru / Gangstarr. Prince. Dr. Buzzard. JB.Fishbone. Ellington. The Time. Kool and the Gang. Badu. A Tribe Called Quest. Monk.The Golden Gate Quartet.
D’Angelo and The Vanguard is a Concept. Like Prince and The Revolution. Or George Clinton and Funkadelic. D’Angelo is the bandleader. The beckoner. He’s the Patton to the Vanguard’s advancing army of seasoned session musicians. Chris Dave sits on the drum throne, building onQuestlove and James Gadson‘s syncopated polyrhythms with generous good feeling. He shifts between punchy breakbeats and trickier, more experimental rhythmic concepts. His kick is brutal and his snare sounds like a slab of metal whacked hard on pavement. Ex-The Time guitarist Jesse Johnson adds washes of sonic color and historic cool to the mix and looks dapper in a trenchoat, scarf, glasses and hat, like Bogart or Clarence Williams III in Mod Squad. Welsh bassist Pino Palladino can play in any genre and has ridiculously precise time. He doesn’t move around. He channels all his rhythmic feeling into his instrument — it’s loping, nasty and sometimes deliberately Dilla-sloppy. Kendra Foster, the stylized Afrodiva with the irregular moves and agave nectar voice, is the only woman on stage. The co-writer of many of the tracks on Black Messiah, her talent is no longer an open secret. Add to that a keyboardist, two more background singers, a horn section and another guitarist: the Vanguard moves like a tight jazz unit, a collective musical extension of D’Angelo’s singular persona. At the Apollo, the players feel like superheroes.
There’s a flipped toe-tapping uptempo rendition of “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” and the pillowtalk jazz of “Really Love.” I heart the extended take on “One Mo’gin,” its rhythms gently stretched and reworked. By now the lights are fully up and the crowd comes into focus: superfans and Apollo A-List members and corporate types and industry insiders all look dazzled and entranced as we bob up and down and get swept up in the hula-hooping grooves and the fervent spirit. The playing on stage feels easy and spontaneous. Every live arrangement has been carefully manicured, every transition thought out. It’s the result of years, or decades, of nerdtastic research into Prince concert bootlegs, and the willingness to bring early James Brown innovations into the 21st Century. Deep pocket grooves arrive and then quickly shift direction and change angles, pushed in new directions and turning corners like the speeding light bikes from Tron. That’s the way great funk works: you rehearse it just enough so that you can be free to be spontaneous and in the moment.
D’Angelo moves around nimbly, cooing into the microphone, putting the buzz in Jesse Johnson’s ear, strapping on a heroic guitar, darting to the back of the house to keyboard doodle. He enjoys hanging out at the lip of the stage where he can generously brush hands with the front row. He yells out to the band to stop on The One and they follow his lead — both a tribute and an update on the James Brown legacy. D’Angelo’s singing is like a portal into another world — the screams like those hot grits scalding Al Green’s back, or like the whip. He moves from mid-register sneer to an upper register falsetto that is gentle and folksy. His fedora and bandanna and dreads and red and black checkered shawl suggest ’60s Bay Area hippie and ’70s cowboy by way of ’90s Compton. D’Angelo may be a shadow of his former svelte, abs-tacular self but this upgrade works much better. No one in the audience is here for anything but the music and the will to cultivate spirit. We can be free to enjoy his sound outside of the all-consuming Voodoo sex god marketing moment.
The concert stretches on for more than two hours but no one even remembers they’re wearing a watch. There’s 30 minutes of encore, as the band stunningly moves through electrifying versions of hits and album cuts like “Lady,” “Back to the Future (Part I & II ),” “Left & Right” and “Chicken Grease.” Steaming hot funk marauds the Apollo, bouncing off the walls, dissolving time and space and bodies. After a long stretch, there’s demand for a second encore, and we get it in the form of “Till It’s Done (TUTU)” and the song that no one will leave without hearing, D’Angelo’s 2000 slow jam “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” One by one, the Vanguard members leave their posts and peel off into the wings until it’s just D’Angelo alone on stage, crooning to us at his keyboard. All that’s left is the powerful current connecting D’Angelo and his rapt Apollo congregation.
Around that moment, I remembered lying in bed in Harlem in 1995, watching D’Angelo, dressed in a baggy clothing and sporting cornrows, on my 13-inch Sony television, as he performed “Brown Sugar” on this very stage for a promotional appearance on Showtime at the Apollo. I still have that recording on VHS. (He also kickstarted his career on amateur night at the Apollo in 1991.) The sheer joy on stage at The Apollo Saturday night is a testament that D’Angelo did more than just survive in the intervening 20 years — he’s lived through the record business, the arrival of children, breakups, bad drugs, good music, near fatal-car crashes, half-naked music videos, management changes, endless recording sessions at Electric Ladyland, Web 2.0, smartphones, 9/11, and I don’t know what else — he evolved and his music did too.
Stepping out into the cold corporate winter air of the new New York, the concert, like the Black Messiah album, was bulwark: it was a reminder that music’s ability to bring people together to celebrate soulful feeling is in and of itself, as Fela once remarked, a weapon of the future. I make my way back down 125th Street and descend back down into the subway. I’ll be back.