D’Angelo at Harlem’s Apollo Theater Feb. 7, 2015
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After D’Angelo finally dropped his first recording in 14 years, Black Messiah, last December to wide critical acclaim, his fans and the music industry exhaled. On Saturday night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the reclusive artist brought his new band, Vanguard, and the sigh of relief became a secular ritual of jubilation for a sold-out audience of 1,500 that included such notables as Alexander Smalls of Minton’s jazz club and the Cecil restaurant, Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Marcus Samuelsson of the Red Rooster restaurant.

D’Angelo and Vanguard straight up rocked the house for more than two hours, journeying through his new recording and selections from his neo-soul debut, Brown Sugar (1995), and the Y2K masterpiece Voodoo. Ever since he won the Amateur Night at the Apollo competition in 1991 at age 16, he has shown a keen appreciation of black musical history. So for this, his first appearance at the historic venue as a leader, he brought his D’A game.

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At 8:30, with stage dark, a lone figure tipped out from stage right, stopping dead center. As he began singing “Prayer” from Black Messiah, the lights came up slowly, the identity of the figure clad in black, with hat cocked to one side, mysterious and unclear, but the voice unmistakable. By the time his band of three backup singers—including the vivacious vocalist Kendra Foster—and instrumental partners on keyboard, drums, two guitars and electric bass came to the stage, they were ready to rock—literally.

One of the pleasures of tracking D’Angelo’s development as an artist striving for ascension to the level of pop-auteur mastery attained by, say, Prince is hearing the way his music stretches and expands boundaries. Brown Sugar honored and updated classic soul and R&B, with shades of jazz and rap, as heard on his Live at the Jazz Café, London date recorded in 1995. Voodoo added more colors, incorporating more hip-hop (“Left & Right,” “Chicken Grease”), funk and even Latin grooves in a collaboration with Questlove and the Soulquarians posse that evinced the influence of the great producer and sound innovator J Dilla, as well as jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove (on the richly layered “Spanish Joint). Black Messiah has all of those elements and more, with a decidedly hard edge on tunes such as the second song performed Saturday, “1000 Deaths,” that incorporates a funk-rock mix.

“Ain’t That Easy,” another Black Messiah cut, featured choruses that brought to mind Sly and the Family Stone and P-Funk as the band’s intensity echoed the message “You ain’t gettin’ away that easy.” The loudness was thankfully brought down a notch with a version of “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” hints of Afrobeat transitioning to “Really Love,” and expansive strings melting into whispered Spanish and Spanish-guitar riffs, a midtempo head-bop groove, and D’Angelo’s falsetto accompanied by Pino Palladino’s walking bass, band and audience claps, and D’Angelo’s own guitar, causing a hush.

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Shades of Al Green, Prince, Marvin Gaye and D.J. Rogers wafted on the bedroom-slow “One Mo’ Gin” from Voodoo and Black Messiah’s “Another Life,” with vocal stylings also recalling Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Is Gone.” The sound mélange was conjoined to a sweet, pungent smell provided by a toking young white guy—contact highs freely available in the middle-mezzanine section.  

D’Angelo is a generous leader, giving his bandmates freedom to solo, including the sax man Brother Jacques Schwarz-Bart, who came in midshow to make up a horn section with trumpeter Darren Barrett. Lead guitarist Jesse Johnson, formerly with Prince (and the Time), brought the spirit of Jimi Hendrix every time he took solo flight. The energy D’Angelo exuded from the stage was invigorating, whether he was dancing and calling out for breaks on “the one,” like James Brown, or kneeling down to serenade sistahs at the stage edge on “Brown Sugar.” A rock-tinged “Charade” led to “Sugah Daddy,” an infectious number with hambone hand claps and harmonic modulations setting Prince in conversation with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

D’Angelo got the spirit so much that he soloed on keyboard as the groove moved easily between James Brown and the church, from funk to psychedelic keyboard. The previous 90 minutes would have been enough, but apparently D’Angelo disagrees with the theory that you leave us wanting more. We refused to go, so over one encore the band powered through “Lady,” “Back to the Future,” “Left & Right” and “Chicken Grease.”

Still wasn’t enough, so a second encore brought an Erykah Badu vibe to “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” with a loping beat that seemed designed to bring us down from the high. D’Angelo closed the way he began: After each band member had left the stage, he was left solo on his biggest hit, “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” whose chorus he bade us to join in on, softly, as in a Sunday-morning sunrise.

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook