His smile has returned. That sly, devilish grin D'Angelo used to flash during his first stint as the world's resident magician of all things funk-musical is in full effect once again. The fear of failure, of misplaced affection, of himself and the world, has visibly dissipated. He seems light in spirit without losing an ounce of substance; a man at peace with his powers and talents, instantly able to flex his soul-shaking vocal chords and command his 10-piece band with the confidence of a veteran lion tamer. And they are absolutely ferocious, absolutely joyful, and absolutely in command of the audience. It borders on the miraculous. My heart swelled with love to see D'Angelo and the Vanguard enjoy their jobs so thoroughly, taking so much pleasure in giving so much pleasure.
He taught himself how to play the entirety of Prince's first album at age 5. Around that time, he began playing piano in his family's church congregation. It was easily apparent early on that he was a prodigy, perhaps even a musical prophet. D'Angelo took to every instrument he touched with an almost preternatural ease. The holy spirit flowed through him with no impediment. He had that fire.
D'Angelo's first world takeover occurred over the course of two albums and multiple world tours between 1995 and 2000. The acclaim was unequivocal, both critical and popular. There's a somewhat famous story of Eric Clapton hearing the Voodoo album for the first time and having a hysterical meltdown, culminating with him practically screaming, "Does it all sound like this?" That is the very deserved amount of exasperated wonder that D'Angelo inspires. And then, dude vanished with as much mystery as he had once materialized — out of thin air. So when a wunderkind like D'Angelo (born Michael Eugene Archer) re-erupts from the ether, there is a level of expectation and anticipation that seems impossible to meet, let alone exceed. Perhaps that is why after every record he has made (1995's Brown Sugar, 2000's Voodoo, and 2014's Black Messiah), he has vanished from public life.
D'Angelo has told many sources the spotlight is too bright, the temptations too great, and the spiritual price of fame far too expensive. He's cited the death of longtime friend J Dilla in 2006 as both a devastating event and an essential turning point for the singer. Through Dilla's untimely passing, his own mortality came into painfully sharp focus and he had to face many a demon, particularly his drug and alcohol addictions. His first layoff — the five years between Brown Sugar and Voodoo — seems like a millisecond compared to his 13-plus year absence before dropping Black Messiah late last year, at midnight, on a Sunday, with no advance notice. The Sasquatch level of mythology about his disappearance had reached the point of complete disbelief (there were no TV programs dedicated to finding him). He was gone. Never would we witness the holy fire of the preacher's kid whose bedroom was covered in Prince posters, who taught himself piano before his sixth birthday, who mastered over 20 instruments before he was even 20 years old.
Then all of sudden, he was seemingly everywhere all at once. Stories emerged that he'd been working in secret on Black Messiah since the Voodoo tour ended, and that the last song was finished four years ago. This made the poignancy of songs like "The Charade" even more baffling. How did he write a veritable civil rights anthem so specific to Baltimore and the recent spate of police shootings, years before the events took place? The answer is part common sense and part magical realism.
D'Angelo, like most with eyes and ears and minority status, saw this all unfolding a long time ago. Only Newsweek readers or NPR listeners thought that stuff was new. So it wasn't that difficult to predict. The second part of the answer is revealed in the album's title, and the name of his tour: Second Coming. He might bristle at the connotation, but the simple fact is that D'Angelo had to embrace the prophetic nature of his life, his career, and his talent. His horror at the hyper-sexualization of his public persona after the release of his video for "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" was the firestorm he walked through to get to the man we see before us now. It reads like part hagiography, part Behind the Music TV fodder. As well it should. His embracing of the sacred and the profane, like his childhood hero, Prince, led him to this album and this tour.
Having beheld the glory of D'Angelo and the Vanguard last week at Denver's Ogden Theatre, I tell you without hesitation that this man, this band, is not only not to be missed, but it verges on sacrilege if you do. I have seen Prince. I have seen James Brown and the JB's. I have sweated through 4 and 1/2 hours of Parliament-Funkadelic. And the Second Coming tour is not better than those things. But it is absolutely that level of soulful funk wizardry. D'Angelo and his current band (featuring master bass player Pino Palladino and Jesse Johnson, longtime Prince associate and founding member of the Time) is as good as any band on Earth today, if not better. This tour is all your life should be about right now. I'm beginning to wonder why I'm typing this and not on my way to the next show.
D'Angelo performs Saturday, June 27; 7:30 p.m.; Royal Oak Music Theatre; romtlive.com; tickets start at $65.