by Timothy Cox
For New Pittsburgh Courier
COLUMBIA, MD. — Erykah Badu is still alive and kicking it with her new national concert tour.
On a day last month when the sunshine never showed, and expected warm summer breezes turned to light showers and a brisk winds that could stop any outdoor event — Erykah Badu’s fans held steady and waited for the 2013 Summer Spirit Festival headliner to appear.
Her fans’ patience paid off tremendously, as the Queen of Neo-Soul sweetly and calmly destroyed a sold-out Merriweather Post Pavilion showcase to continue a string of sold out performances. Strategically located between Washington, DC and Baltimore, the venue is acoustically unique and provided the correct ambiance for Badu’s uniquely rich vocal phrasings and nuances, similar to a modern-day Billie Holiday with a dash of Ella Fitzgerald.
During Badu’s 75-minute performance, she delved into some of her classics, like “Love of My Life” and a few hits from her seminal 1997 debut album, Baduizm.
“On and On” was well received, as she accompanied the rhythmic groove with an 808 drum machine – evoking comparisons to Graham Central Station’s Patryce “Choclet” Banks’ and her Funk Box from a few decades ago.
Needless to say, Badu is a throwback, old-soul, ‘70s child who deserves her “Queen of Neo Soul” moniker.
Fortunately, her show was stellar, considering the disappointment pervading the venue when attendees learned that co-headliner D’Angelo, aka Michael Eugene Archer, was “ill” and would not perform on this evening. One gent said he drove from Albany, NY to hear D’Angelo’s rare live show. Two women from Richmond, Va., noted they spent the bulk of their five-hour drive groovin’ to D’Angelo’s classic “Brown Sugar” track.
Though D’s absence was unexpected and disappointing to the packed, 18,000-plus music lovers, neosoul soulman and DC favorite, Raheem DeVaughn, proved a worthy replacement. His distinctly raw, soulful vocals and energetic showmanship was on-point. For the record, he’s not related to William DeVaughn of “Diamond in the Back” 1970s fame, though both artists claim DC as home.
Completing the bill was hip-hop legend Busta Rhymes, DC Go-Go bands Rare Essence and Black Alley, along with Australian soul group Hiatus Kaiyote. Comedian/film actor Mike Epps served as emcee, but was a tad too vulgar with his language – considering the large numbers of classy-contemporary concertgoers who follow upscale artists like Badu, DeVaughn and even the now-grownup fans of Busta.
The Badu experience is a challenging one to describe. Small wind gusts seemed complementary to her performance and calmly kept her fans spellbound – anticipating her next songs, antics. Her theatrical background is obvious.
Bits of traditional RnB beats are intertwined with spacey, flute-based world music. At one point, she covered a piece of fellow Dallas natives Yarbrough & Peoples’ 1980 classic, “Don’t Stop The Music” and created a lengthy jam session that exuded Bob Marley-like reggae rhythms.
Dexter Wansel, Lonnie Liston Smith, Nina Simone and Roy Ayers would’ve been proud of their young, kindred soul.
Traditional jazz improvisations constantly flowed from her musicians, while background vocalists Keisha Jackson (Millie’s daughter) and Nayrok Wright (Erikah’s sister) offered unique vocal harmonies reflective of the Andrews Sisters, Aretha’s sisters (Carolyn and Erma) and The Emotions (the Hutchinson sisters). Badu’s music is quietly powerful, soothing to a degree – and lyrically thought-provoking.
A backstage meet and greet following her performance – capturing a laid-back Badu (born Erica Abi Wright) welcoming impromptu questions from about 50 fans for nearly 20 minutes. She spoke of motherhood’s fulfillment, appreciating a Grammy award-winning career and her many influences, including Chaka Khan, Barbara Streisand, Phoebe Snow and Rikie Lee Jones of “Chuckie’s in Love” fame.
Her directives/gestures in controlling her six-piece band evoked shades of “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, his unpredictable arrangements and band-directive approach. She’s definitely a woman in control.
While acknowledging that she and Beyonce Knowles are both Texas-bred performers, Badu noted that their creativity, Lone Star state ties and phenomenal musical successes are, “sweet, just like sugar.”
“I get a certain feeling when I’m in the DC, Philly, Virginia area. A certain vibe is present and it really feels good,” said Badu, as she bid farewell to her adoring backstage faithful.