Can you picture this? On the night Prince was celebrating the release of his third album in 11 months with a listening party at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, reclusive soul man D'Angelo, one of Prince's disciples, took to the stage at First Avenue in Minneapolis Sunday to showcase material from his first album in 15 years.
D'Angelo's "Black Messiah," released without advance notice in December, is one of the most exciting and urgent albums of the past year. After D'Angelo and his terrific band got in the groove Sunday, they gave one of the most exciting concerts of the year.
Like Prince, D'Angelo has his own clock, which meant he hit the cramped stage an hour late. Dressed in a bolero hat and long coat with cutouts, he looked as if he had stepped off the set of a spaghetti Western with costumes designed by Lady Gaga on a low budget.
Always eccentric, D'Angelo wears his influences on his sleeve even if they're holy. If his classic "Voodoo" album from 2000 felt like an homage to Prince, the new album and stage presentation seemed heavily informed by Sly Stone and James Brown.
Like the Godfather of Soul, D'Angelo has a well-drilled 10-person band, the Vanguard, that he conducted with vocal commands, hand gestures and head nods at First Avenue. However, on the last night of their aptly named Second Coming Tour, D'Angelo and the Vanguard took a good 45 minutes to hit their stride.
Not that there weren't rewarding moments during these long jams (it seemed like only seven songs before the encore). This wasn't informal like D'Angelo's special 2013 duo show with drummer Questlove at First Ave. (Questlove was in the house Sunday, serving as between-act DJ and sitting in with opening act, LP Music, a funky Twin Cities jazz ensemble.) But D'Angelo seemed to be vibing, using his falsetto here, an ecstatic Princely scream there, playing a little piano and a little guitar, changing outfits and conducting the Vanguard in an organic way to try and find that sweet spot.
The flamenco-flavored "Spanish Joint" from "Voodoo" connected with the sold-out crowd, and then D'Angelo exploded on "The Charade," the "Black Messiah" piece about police brutality. He called for fists in the air as he delivered this bracing, noisy Sly-like funk-rocker, complete with a soaring, strobe-lit guitar solo by Jesse Johnson, the former Time guitarist.
The big payoff was "Brown Sugar," D'Angelo's breakthrough hit from 1995, as he asked the fans to wave their hands in the air — "Purple Rain" style — because he knew where he was. Later, he was even dancing "The Bird," another tip of the hat to the movie and First Avenue.
D'Angelo was on fire for the rest of the 125-minute set. He got funky on the piano for "Sugah Daddy," seduced on the forever sensual "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," feigned exits James Brown style and even pulled a JB move by asking the Vanguard to do a 47½ count. Good gawd!
At 40 and not buff like in the "Voodoo" era, D'Angelo isn't the dynamic dancer he once was or the sensational sexy showman witnessed at his unforgettable Orpheum Theatre performance in 2000. But he still turned it out Sunday.
And he brought along some secret weapons. Backup singer Joi Gilliam lit up the stage with her vibrant dancing and colorful look (a furry black cat hat with her long golden braids as a massive tail). Johnson took some expressive solos and offered a few smiles on a stage he has owned since 1981. And most important was masterful Pino Palladino, whose bass lines would bounce, swing and funk at the same time.
On a night when Prince was a no-show in his own crib, the reclusive D'Angelo showed up big time in the house that Prince made famous.