Review: Badu puts on funky and playful show
REVIEW BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
If you were at Friday’s concert with Erykah Badu, I don’t have to tell you she deserves her due. She’s transformed since her biggest impact on the Billboard charts in the late 1990s, but remains an intriguing, creative and charismatic performer.
Most people know her from her first record, 1997’s Grammy-winning “Baduizm,” which included the fluid, sensual hit “On and On.” She’s grown up and moved on from the nostalgic neo-soul of that period, but she’s definitely still soulful. She’s just not simple.
Badu can calibrate a performance to a large or small venue, turn a restless crowd rapt and still maintain an air of ragged spontaneity. I can testify to that, because I’ve seen her perform at two live concerts in the last two weeks, first in Austin, Texas, capturing the attention of a rowdy crowd of thousands that had just been pummeled by Las Vegas electronic-music act Crystal Method, and now at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, as the sole act.
The show started more than 90 minutes after its billed time of 8 p.m., with a procession of (unbilled) local DJs on stage to keep music flowing until Badu’s arrival. Most of the audience seemed to expect that, as the lights stayed up and the bar lines stayed full until the music started. But once Badu appeared, walking out on stage with her right fist raised in the air, those in the crowd were drawn in, and soon on their feet. I could not see the upper levels from my seat, but the floor level of the concert hall was pretty full of shouting, dancing fans for the two-hour show.
Badu’s wide smile and dancing eyes are part of her appeal, and they were in full effect as she looked out slyly from below her fedora in the first half of the show.
She started out wearing that trademark oversized hat, a black shiny jacket and shape-hugging pants, with heavy gold bracelets. Over the course of the two-hour show, she put first the hat, then the jacket and bracelets aside, revealing herself in loose braids and a long white T.
She was responsive to the crowd, mixing up old and new songs and pulling out some Dallas bounce and booty-dance moves mid-show to keep the energy up. Self-aware and playfully controlled, she punctuated the end of several songs by throwing her arms up, or striking an archer’s pose.
Badu came out strong vocally from the beginning at the Blaisdell, in contrast to her Texas show, where it took her a minute to warm up. There were a couple of passages where her voice veered off key, but for the most part her vocals were warm and wide-ranging, punctuated by her lengthy, passionate high notes.
EARLY ON, she warmed up the admiring audience with “The Healer,” from 2008 album “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” and its hip-hop-loving, J Dilla tribute-sharing lines: “Hip-hop: It’s bigger than religion. It’s bigger than the government. This one is for Dilla.”
Those are the lyrics that fans respond to, but there’s another key line in “The Healer.” It goes, “We ain’t dead yet. We been living through your internet.”
That line is a clue to the motivation behind Badu’s newest project, with the electronic hip-hop musicians dubbed The Cannabinoids who backed her on this show.
“New Amerykah Part One,” ended up on many critics’ best albums of the year lists — and Badu did most of the creating for it at home, on a computer, sharing ideas and beats with musician friends online. She’s again working digitally with The Cannabinoids, a Dallas-based them that she describes as hand-picked.
The Cannabinoids, named after the psychoactive substances in marijuana because Badu claims the band will also affect the way you think, came equipped with laptops, turntables, keyboards, a Theremin and a live drummer. They created a full sound for the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Whether Badu sped up a song to double time or broke out of a groove to improvise with her vocals, they seemed to thrive on her musical turns.
She quieted the band at one point to talk to the audience about her sympathy for peoples seeking the return of “occupied” land, inspiring Polynesian chanting from one corner of the concert hall.
And she quoted from 2010 album “New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh),” with “Window Seat,” a plea for love and understanding that also cries out against “groupthink.” That track has a controversial video that shows Badu stripping naked on a Dallas street and dropping to the ground as if shot.
Despite the heavy sentiments, though, the music always came back around to a warm, funky beat.
After warning the audience that she was running out of time, Badu played another 20 minutes. Near the end of the show, she stepped down off the stage to sing her way through the crowd up front, assuring them, “Love can make it better.”
Badu was last here in 2009, at the Waterfront at Aloha Tower. Then and now, she proved a strong performer, inspiring for her insistence on doing it her way: with beats, beauty and a message.