D'Angelo and ?uestlove at First Avenue, 6/23/13

Categories: Last Night
Steve Cohen
D'Angelo and Questlove
First Ave, Minneapolis
Sunday, June 23, 2013

Long before D'Angelo ever hit town for his two-man show in the Mainroom with Questlove, one thing seemed like a safe bet: there was no telling just who was going to show up. Would it be the impossibly sexy soul singer who created Voodoo? Would it be the troubled recluse that spent the last decade drifting in and out of rehab? Or would it be someone else entirely?

What we got was something shy of a reinvention -- although you might not have known it at first glance. After all, that once famously ripped body had become something of a shell, merely the frame of some short, stocky man. But D'Angelo also did his best to obscure himself through the music, and in a far more powerful way: with a set that delved deep into a world -- one that was dense, dark, and luxurious -- that used "D'Angelo" as nothing more than a sign post along the way.

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Slideshow: D'Angelo and ?uestlove at First Avenue, 6/23/13

Indeed, by sheer dint of the rarity of his public appearances -- it had been well over a decade since D'Angelo last toured, much less come anywhere near the Twin Cities -- this show had the possibility to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sure, there was a new single recently, and talk of a new album -- but who was to say he'd ever come back? And for a while, it almost seemed like he wanted to keep us waiting -- with the show not starting for an over hour after the scheduled set time.
Photo by Steve Cohen
What was most remarkable about his visit to First Ave was how little he tried to conceal just how far he's traveled inside himself over the years: early on, the set remained slow, even introverted, and D'Angelo seemed almost lost inside himself. It was up to Questlove, in fact, to try and keep things light, as he shot video of the crowd with his phone and joked about his friend having "been missing in action." But this wasn't at all a detraction from the show. Quite the contrary: on a song like "You Caught Me Smiling," for instance, he seemed to channel the spirit of Sly Stone through the song's thick groove and hazy, drugged-out vibe.

This stuff was louche and decadent, and D'Angelo fully inhabited it -- brooding presence and all. In the early part of the show, at least, the pair simply let each song linger, as though slowly marinating the mood, as well as the interplay between the keys and drums. If anyone expected a showman, they were going to have to be patient. But that didn't seem to bother the crowd any: almost from the get-go, the sold-out room was steamy from all the tightly-packed, dancing bodies.

Gradually, however, the show entered a new phase, around the time of the slow-burning Ohio Players' cut "Our Love Has Died." Here D'Angelo began to explore the range of his voice, from the low growl to the high falsetto, coloring it with all the melodrama he could muster. And then came the breakdown -- and then a further breakdown. He and Questlove slowed down the song and dismantled the parts until it was little more than a mechanical snap. And so it followed from there, until the end of Prince's "She's Always in My Hair," where the build-up -- full of D'Angelo scatting and improvising -- finally brought a full-on release, one that left you almost drained.

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