As the jarring whirls echoed and the spoken word introduction of album track, “1000 Deaths” reverberated around the O2 Manchester arena, an all black-clad D’Angelo stepped into centre frame and the surging political sentiment that roused was subtly morphed into later Black Messiah cut “The Prayer”. Backed by The Vanguard featuring old friend and bass icon Pino Palladino and The Times’ Jesse Johnson, D’Angelo began to romp through a heavy catalogue of hits both old and new. From “Brown Sugar” to “Sugah Daddy” a tight display of natural musical ability flooded the O2 Arena with a series of tight, well rehearsed soul-r’n’b jams which were scorched by hints of funk, Latin and Hip-Hop influence.
From the very moment that he took to the stage any notion of the reclusive songwriter was soon discarded as he gyrated from stage left to right, embracing his merry band who with broad smiles on each of their faces clearly enjoyed the arrival of The Vanguard. Truth be told, this felt almost like a homecoming – after well documented troubles in the interim leading up to the release of Black Messiah, D’Angelo seemed finally happy and contented and most at home leading his tight Vanguard troop through subtle slow jams numbers through to almost riotous “Soul Train” like proportions that will have caused many an aching muscle from dancing come the morning after.
The vibe of the room shifted with each and every number, with political dalliances like, “The Charade” spinning a tight yet contemplative groove into the evening’s atmosphere; yet the overall mentality of the show at its core was love. From the remnants of the first Black Messiah single “Really Love” came the familiar Boom Clap, Boom-Boom Clap of 2000’s Voodoo mid-album cut “One Mo’Gin” which saw D’Angelo sprinkle his inebriated wrists over a drunk and pulsing electric piano riff, whilst longtime collaborator Palladino glided his long and intricate Welsh fingers from fret to fret over a falling, paralytic drum beat that combined with rapturous effect to shake the entire building.
Although many have stated that D’Angelo shelters his vocals within the confines of the background of the mix on record, it became very clear tonight that the man still has twice as many tools than most vocalists could only ever hope for. Shifting from James Brown like shrieks to his renowned, ‘sexy falsetto croon’ seamlessly, D’Angelo has mastered not only his voice and piano playing skills but that of his use of the guitar; adding another wave to the cacophony that is the Vanguard and cementing his status not only as a musician but that as a showman and performer. After a groove-fueled chaotic performance a definite highlight of the evening was the classy finale of the second encore, “Untitled”. Sat alone at the tail end of the night under a sole light of pallid yellow distortions, D’angelo sat smiling, head thrown back with his subtle fingers running up and down a major scale on a sparkled and textured electric Yamaha piano as the entire occupancy of the O2 Apollo repeatedly sung back to him a steady refrain of ‘How does it feel?’
Hands clapping intermittently, the crowd basked in the joy and union that the Vanguard had brought with them over the past two hours and fifteen minutes. When the final words were sang and the final chords rang out, the context of the song seemingly took on a whole new meaning, a sentiment of thought welcoming D’Angelo back to stage. It’s taken around 14 years or so to arrive at this point but it sure does feel pretty damn good to have him back.