Erykah Badu Arena Theatre May 21, 2011
Even if she never drops another album, Erykah Badu will still go down as one of the most important artists of our generation. Few can massage a neo-soul groove, seduce a jazz tune, and straddle a hip-hop beat the way she can.
On the same day Harold Camping and other doomsday believers predicted that God would send devastating earthquakes to destroy the Earth, those who hadn't been raised into a gaping sky convened at Arena Place to for a slice of Baduizm. If God had truly delayed the apocalypse to give humanity another shot at salvation, it probably served a good purpose Saturday night.
Badu's concert was as close to a religious experience as you could get.
Like the apocalypse, Badu is notorious for making fans wait. Imagine our surprise when a lady we met at Arena told us that Badu would go on at 8 p.m. We immediately tweeted that if Badu took the stage at 8 we would eat our head.
Luckily, we didn't have to resort to any sort of bizarre self-decapitation, as Badu's band graced the stage at 9:40 p.m. Still, there was no sign of the self-named "Analog Girl." Her band started playing the instrumental to "20 Feet Tall." The piano loop played over and over, still no sign of Badu.
ventually, the band lunged into a full-fledged jam session. "Wait, was that supposed to happen?" a gentleman in the crowd wondered. About ten minutes later, Badu emerged to a chorus of screams and yelps. She wore tight-fitting pants with tribal patterns and heels about 20 feet tall. She looked like a goddess.
The show built up slowly, with mellow tunes like "Green Eyes" and "On & On" leading the way. The real party-starter was the self-referential "Me," which had the crowd cheering at lines like "My ass and legs have gotten thick." She fed off the energy of the crowd the entire night. There was even a little tough love - when the audience didn't seem enthusiastic, she teased: "That's it, we're going home."
After listening to her bewitching voice for awhile, we closed our eyes and imagined she was singing us to bed. The show needed an infusion of energy to stanchion her lilting vocals. Badu added that much needed change of pace by covering several hip-hop gems from Slick Rick's "La-Di-Da-Di" to AZ's verse on "Life's A Bitch."
This segment of the show enlivened the audience, energized the set, and had everyone swaying. The hip-hop set was so good that she kept it going for a bit, but there's such a thing as too much of a good thing. The crowd was growing anxious for more Baduizm.
When she's not exhausting or frustrating, Badu can be fascinating. She spent several minutes scatting, drumming, reprising earlier cuts like "On & On" and elongating songs just for the sake of elongating songs. That's Badu in a nutshell: A free spirit. She plays by her own rules, and that's a major component of her recipe for success.
It's what makes her one of the most important artists of our generation; she sings about the simplest of emotions in a very poetic manner. And even when she's describing the obvious, she does so in terms so cryptic that you sometimes second-guess.
Badu is a musical schizophrenic, often wandering from soul to funk, R&B, hip-hop and jazz with remarkable ease. Her show was stunningly impressive in many ways. The sound from her band was stellar. The bass was booming. The drums were emitting crisp rhythms. Badu's voice played like its own instrument, colorful and melodic.
Her performance Saturday night was sometimes great, sometimes self-indulgent, but it was never boring. She chose not to perform any of her monster hits. No "Bag Lady," and damn sure no "Tyrone." It was as if the show had been building up to the climactic rendition of "Soldier" all along.
She prefaced that song with a backstory about The Fourth World War, the 2003 documentary that inspired that song and its accompanying album, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). She talked about U.S. occupation and the soldiers in the documentary before dedicating her concert to the future generation, who "may someday be soldiers and have to recognize who they are."
The crowd left chanting "yesiree."
Following the performance, the party moved upstairs to The Penthouse, which we were disappointed to find had no kinky models. The after-show event was dubbed Twilight Conversation and Practicum with Erykah Badu, a personal development workshop curated by the Umami Folklore Group and the Imani School Project. It was hosted by none other than Professor Trill himself, Bun B.
The theme of the occasion revolved around personal stories. The idea is that everyone is a storyteller, and that we exist to transfer the principles of these stories to future generations.
Badu had a great story. She recall a moment of personal awareness when "Brother Common" took her to Cuba in 2000. Baduizm was getting rave reviews and Badu was on top of the world. "All these great things were happening and I was in a place of soul-searching. I was looking for Erykah."
She found herself at a Santerian reading in Havana, Cuba. Badu was dressed for the occasion--white gown, head wrap, heels. While sitting on the dusty sidewalk waiting for her turn, she noticed several people, including a young man who wore cutoff denim shorts, ragged shoes. There was a lit cigarette in between his dirty fingernails and he shared a beer with a friend.
When Badu went in to get his reading, the boy in the denim shorts followed her, beer still in hand. Concerned that someone else was intruding on her sacred space, Badu wondered about the young man's presence. Pablo, her translator, explained that the man was actually the priest. He had come from a long line of priests. It didn't matter what he wore, it only mattered what was inside of him.
Badu says the experience taught her that people transcend image. She left Cuba without her head wrap and hasn't worn it since. "I realized that I am the head wrap. I am the ankh. I am the incense. I am all those things."
Personal Bias: In our head, we're married to Badu and we have a child named Earth Milk.
The Crowd: A diverse mix of Okayplayer types who will gladly pay for a Soulquarian album.
Overheard In the Crowd: "You can have my cherries."
Random Notebook Dump: Badu's dress brushed against our skin when she walked past us for the folklore workshop. We made a mental note never to wash that part of our body again.
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20 Feet Tall Green Eyes The Healer Me On and On Appletree Other Side of the Game Love of My Life Danger Soldier