Faith Pennick, author of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, on seeing D’Angelo perform for the first time.
Live performances are like power outlets to me. I can plug in and share that surge of electricity the band or singer brings song after song.
I had never seen D’Angelo on stage prior to the Voodoo tour. A good friend in Brooklyn invited me to see him at Radio City Music Hall in March 2000. I was curious about what D’Angelo would be like in concert, and how songs from his just-released album would resonate in this historic concert venue.
But there was a last-minute snag. The second New York City show, the Friday date for which my friend and I had tickets, was postponed due to D’Angelo having throat problems. So we waited the weekend and showed up Monday night at Radio City’s doors on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue.
Rapper Mos Def was the opening act, years before he changed his name to Yasiin Bey. The response was friendly, but the audience did not hide its overall disinterest in his set. I remember feeling bad for him; being the opener for such an anticipated headliner is a thankless job.
D’Angelo and his band, the Soultronics, came out and the rest of the night was an incendiary sonic boom. He owned the stage, just like his idols James Brown and Prince would. When he performed his ode to cuckoldry, “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” the organ-led resignation of the original 1995 version from D’Angelo’s debut, Brown Sugar, was transformed into a slicing, guitar-driven, balls-out anthem of vengeance. The audience screamed and slammed their bodies back and forth, reminiscent to a punk rock set at CBGB. All that was missing was the mosh pit.
But at the end, there was “Untitled (How Does it Feel?).” The women wailed; a few had the gumption to throw panties on stage. During that song, the husbands, boyfriends, and male companions in attendance were merely observers, for all intents and purposes, invisible. The sanctified ending of D’Angelo screaming for your (or his) release on the record is transformed into an intimate yearning. As the Soultronics departed the stage one by one, we were left only with D’Angelo and his piano. The call and response was a majority female audience singing, “How does it feel?” D’Angelo chirps back; flirting, aching, teasing us all.
During the Voodoo tour, D’Angelo emerged as more than the boy genius behind the keys. He had graduated to master showman. However, his command of the stage overwhelmed the young artist at the time. Alan Leeds, then the Voodoo tour manager, said during my interview for the book that D’Angelo finds that intense power over an audience “scary.” The response from those female fans who ripped D’Angelo’s clothes and screamed for him to “take it off” also pushed his anxiety that he wasn’t being taken seriously as a musician.
Whatever dubiety D’Angelo had at the time with touring, his mastery and that of the Soultronics was admired widely. Writing for the Village Voice, music critic Robert Christgau declared his Radio City experience as “the greatest concert [he’d] seen in years.” After two-and-a-half hours of D’Angelo’s black magic, the audience—including yours truly—was thoroughly under his spell.
D’Angelo’s Voodoo comes out on March 5th, 2020. Pre-order your copy today!