About halfway through an exquisite rendition of her jazzy ballad “Cleva,” Erykah Badu offered up a live demonstration of the honest vulnerability that has made her recent studio work so compelling — she removed her towering African headdress, omnipresent for most of her career, and revealed a newly shaven pate where ersatz dreadlocks once flowed. The confession drove the Radio City crowd into a frenzy; they leapt to their feet and whooped in praise of her candor. It also set the perfect tone for Badu to showcase the threads of love, betrayal, self-doubt and, ultimately, confidence that wind through her new album “Mama’s Gun.”
Supported by a deliciously funky-seven piece band and a trio of backing vocalists, Badu played an hour-and-a-half set that consisted almost entirely of songs from the new release. When she dipped into her debut album –1997’s “Baduizm” — it was to resurrect such crowd favorites as hit single “On & On” and you-go-girl anthem “Call Tyrone.”
Not that hearing the new material is anything to complain about. Badu effectively navigated the live crowd through the eclectic landscape of power funk, retro soul and slow jazz that makes the album such an engaging listen.
She set a fun-loving tone early by raising the roof with a raucous, but oddly sped-up, rendition of the opening track on Mama’s Gun, “Penitentiary Philosophy,” which oozed Parliament-style syncopated funk.
Often compared to Billie Holiday for the quirky yet endearing tone of her voice, she put on an uncanny impression of the prewar jazz diva over a shimmering background of stage-lit stars for the silken ballad “Orange Moon.”
Badu let the audience out of her grip only once — toward the end of show closer “Tyrone.” The singer launched into a bit of impromptu comic bandleading in a call-and-response joke that went on way too long, prompting more than a few polite calls from the crowd to move on.
But the moment passed, and Badu came back in full form for a two-song encore. “Green Eyes,” the artful mini-medley about romantic rejection that closes the new album, and her latest single “Bag Lady” were delivered with authority, and the singer’s soaring vocal solos to close the night pulled the crowd out of their seats once again.
Opening for Badu was her close friend and rumored romantic interest, Common. The Chicago-born roots rapper tore through a short set of tracks from his latest LP, “Like Water for Chocolate,” ably backed by a live band and DJ combo he called the Water Babies. Among the highlights was a semi-improvised rendition of “Time Travelin’,” on which Common brought his considerable rhythmic skills to bear over jazzy sax and trumpet melodies.
Badu performs March 9 and 10 at the Universal Amphitheatre.