D’Angelo & The Testimony at Le Zenith, Paris 2012 | Live Review

I probably shouldn’t say this, but what I witnessed in Paris on a cold Sunday night was a legendary performance. I’ve seen a few legends in my time, most recently perhaps Prince at the O2, and Sunday night was up there with it. There, I said it.

Le Zenith was the setting for D’Angelo’s French leg of his European tour, his ‘comeback’ tour, a whole 12 years after his last album Voodoo was released. I won’t bore you with the well documented trials and tribulations in his hiatus, something he alluded to with a re-iteration of the end phrase of the opening line from “One Mo’Gin”– ‘I know some things have changed since the last I’ve seen you/some good/some for the bad baby.’ But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

Arriving early, I still somehow managed to miss some of Jean Grae’s opening set, which was a great introduction to her music. Although I hadn’t heard much of her stuff before, I heard enough to know she was rapper closely affiliated with Talib Kweli who had impressed with her verses on a few occasions. She was on stage as I entered the rather large venue, perhaps three times as large as London’s Brixton Academy, with a backing singer, a DJ and keyboard player…singing. To my surprise, her voice was good, her songs were catchy and she had a lot of energy, as well as a slight potty mouth, but it was all good and in the spirit of things! After warming up a slightly reserved Parisian crowd, she departed leaving the crowd anticipating the entrance of D’Angelo.

To his credit, he didn’t keep people waiting too long (in comparison to 11 years since his last show), his band took the stage at around 8.45pm under the dark, only uplit by deep purple lights playing the opening track off Voodoo, “Playa Playa.” After much squinting of eyes and jostling, they realised he wasn’t even on stage, yet they heard his voice effortlessly work its way through the song. And then, as he and his backing singers repeated the line “in a minute” over and over, the stage went pitch black and those at the front began screaming as they noticed a silhouette of a man wearing a fedora wielding a guitar move to the centre of the stage, a scream which moved back through the auditorium, until the lights came up and the place erupted. It was him, Michael Eugene Archer. The Soul Messiah and R&B Jesus had returned.

After putting his funk down on the jet black guitar that matched his leather jacket, D’Angelo moved into an altered version of “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” something a lot more funkier than the smooth one on the record, with his backing singers singing the horn parts and him changing the phrasing to fit the more uptempo new suit he had found for it. A quick undressing showed us that D’Angelo, you know, the one with a black bandana, black vest and muscular arms. Next on the setlist was a version of “Devil’s Pie” that Sly Stone would be proud of and after plenty of toying with the crowd on “Chicken Grease” what was evident by this point was that D’Angelo had neither lost the ‘fonk’ nor his voice, with that Prince/James Brown scream sounding as gritty and effortless as ever, as if he used to cry like that when he was a baby.

D’Angelo was constantly interspersing all of his old material with new material, which you can check out here here here. I must say, I didn’t feel entirely sold on all of it on first listen, however he seems to have bought forward the spirit and musical tradition of Sly and The Family Stone on the never heard before “Ain’t That Easy” (video below) and James Brown on “Sugar Daddy.”

The all to common and accurate Prince comparisons were evident on “The Charade” and “Another Life” sounded a little like Prince would covering The Stylistics. After having watched a few videos of the night, I’m starting to love “Another LIfe” and “The Charade,” so it may be that for those who aren’t enamoured by his new material that we have to either a) wait for a recorded version of it or b) understand that not everyone instantly fell in love with his other albums. D’Angelo is grown as a writer and musician, and we have to grow with him.

Another amazing feature of the concert was that D’Angelo let his very talented band, named ‘The Testimony,’ shine via an epic version of “Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker.” The track was preceded by a cover of Parliament’s “I’ve Been Watching You (Move Your Sexy Body)” the chord structure of which led perfectly and smoothly into it. The classic off his debut Brown Sugar album was spread across a series of movements in which guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, legendary bassist Pino Palladino and the insane drummer Chris Dave all had rather epic indulgent solos, which for those who don’t appreciate musicianship may have become a little boring. However, for me, it was like geeking out.

Perhaps my favourite moment of the show was when D’Angelo took to his elevated electric piano and ran through a series of songs off both his records. “Jonz in My Bonz”, “Spanish Joint,” “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes Of Mine,” “Cruisin,” Higher” and “One Mo’Gin.” “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” sent the crowd into a frenzy, and most women were calling for him to strip, something he almost threatened to do, moving out from behind the piano to the screams of the crowd. What made this segment so special was here was a man who had been away for so long and it was just him, a piano and the Paris audience, who acted like they had waited for the chance to sing his songs back to him forever. He was in equal parts smooth, funky and charismatic, reminding me so much of Marvin Gaye.

After being reunited with the band, he ran through a couple of the new tracks mentioned before and then made his exit. With the Parisian crowd demanding more for about 15 minutes, which went from light cheers to all out stomping and clapping, D’Angelo returned with an acoustic guitar to deliver his cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” staying very true to the original and it was a very pleasantly surprising choice of a cover version. He moved into a funkified version of “Brown Sugar,” left the stage, came back and picked up right where he left off, jumping down to give the front row a bunch of high fives and the played various combinations of “The Payback” hits, as and how D directed them, ending the night on a bang. Having played until 11pm, D’Angelo & The Testimony had given the audience more than their money’s worth.

If you were there and would like to relive the experience, or would like a taste of his upcoming dates, or for our readers all around the world who won’t see him until he announces his tour in other territories, you can download a audience member’s recording of the performance from here.

D’Angelo gave people a reminder of just how awesome he was, and still is and why he is so badly in today’s musical landscape. In a world where Euro pop synthesisers, attune, average singers and superficial lyrics are rife, he is the saviour. A world where performance involves choreographed dance routines and looking good for the camera, here is guy sweating it out, freestyling funky little moves in the vain of his idols. In the ‘if-you-can-kinda-sing-you’ll-be-a star’ 15 minutes of fame X Factor culture, I witnessed a man who plays and writes his own material, is responsible for his own destiny. When he sat at the piano, he had everything he ever needed in his voicebox, 10 fingers and those 88 keys. Most importantly, D’Angelo didn’t come on tour to prove himself, but he didn’t come on tour to boast that he was still the man. D’Angelo came on tour because he seemingly loves music, performing, the feeling of people singing his music back to him and he, most likely, cannot do anything else. And we wouldn’t want him to.

Welcome back D’Angelo.

London, you’re in for a real treat on Friday/Saturday.

Full setlist:

  1. Playa Playa
  2. Feel Like Makin’ Love
  3. Ain’t That Easy [new song]
  4. Devil’s Pie
  5. Chicken Grease
  6. The Line (intro) > The Root
  7. The Charade [new song]
  8. I’ve Been Watching You (Move Your Sexy Body)
  9. Shit, Damn, Motherfucker
  10. Solo medley: Jonz In My Bonz > Spanish Joint > Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine > Cruisin’ > Higher > One Mo’Gin > Untitled (How Does It Feel)
  11. Another Life [new song]
  12. Sugah Daddy [new song]
  13. Space Oddity [David Bowie cover]
  14. Brown Sugar
The Testimony band:

Isaiah Sharkey – Guitar
Jef Lee Johnson – Guitar
Ray Angry aka ‘Pookie’ – Keys
Pino Palladino – Bass
Chris Dave – Drums
Robert Lumzy – Percussion, Vocals
Kendra Foster – Vocals
Jermaine Holmes – Vocals
Charles “Red” Middleton – Vocals

Picture Credits: Top- Funk U. Middle- Mr Mass. Bottom- Bazaz.

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