As the lights went down for D’Angelo’s Universal Amphitheater performance, a dozen hooded figures skulked onto the vaulted, faux brick set, looking like a group of ewoks or dour monks, followed by D’Angelo rising from one of the vaults like Iron Chef B-boy. It was not a moment that inspires confidence. For a second, it appeared the singer was going to get medieval.
D’Angelo must realize how silly it all seems — before they could inspire comparisons to Spinal Tap, the cowls are tossed off, the band gets down to business on “Devil’s Pie,” and it’s never referred to again.
Quickly laying claim to the title of pre-eminent soulman of his generation, D’Angelo certainly doesn’t need inane bits of staging to command the crowd’s attention — with talent and charisma to burn, he can outshine any special effect. An imposing, athletic presence, his long, muscled arms and powerful upper body (his personal trainer is credited in the program), give him the appearance of a basketball player, and he dominates the stage with the rangy insolent grace of a Kobe Bryant.
He has the musical moves as well, stuffing his songs with tricky rhythmic turns, soulful hooks and jazzy interludes, while never losing sight of the groove. With a tight 12-piece band behind him — anchored by Pino Palladino’s mercurial bass and the Roots’ Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson on drums — D’Angelo stretches the songs, giving his three-piece horn section room for extended solos. This spontaneity is a surprising contrast to the sometimes deliberate, overcooked quality of “Voodoo”(Virgin), adding some welcome sinew and heft to songs such as “Chicken Grease” and “Playa Playa.”
D’Angelo wears his influences on his sleeve — the clipped James Brown funk, Prince’s pop sensibility, the expansiveness of Sly Stone, the sensuality of Marvin Gaye and Al Green’s soulful elegance (he even passes out roses to the front rows) — but his singular achievement is to synthesize them into something distinctly his own. He has also absorbed modern influences, matching rapper Xhibit on “Left and Right,” and shows his mastery of old school soul and funk by reworking Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” into a flinty invitation, while his cover of the Ohio Players’ “Fire” turns the original’s ominous funk into a gospel shout. Possibly D’Angelo’s only weakness is his ballads, which all too often evaporate into a dewy eyed mist. But “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, made for an intimate, effective closer, as the band walked off by one, leaving D’Angelo alone on stage, crooning the song’s refrain, as, the crowd leaped to its feet, calling his name.