'TCD' guest blogger, Sam Bleazard, was one of the lucky ones who had a golden ticket to see the inimitable Erykah Badu perform live at the Brixton Academy recently. Read below for what he had to say:
How relevant is someone like Erykah Badu to U.K. audiences these days? The high-priestess of nu or neo-soul, and still a giant of U.S. R’n’B with massive ego and own line in eccentricity to match, rolled briefly into town recently. How would her latest album, New AmErykah Part One (4th World War) and accompanying live show be received when there’s a credit crunch and potential global food shortage on the way? I asked myself these questions while standing outside Brixton Academy on a mild Monday night while comtemplating selling my ticket, as although it had sold out this reviewer was feeling increasingly jaded by the live experience.
Erykah Badu arrived in the 1990s, and capitalising on the convergence of soul and hip-hop, she was the earth mother and sage to a generation of listeners looking for some modern blues and a comtemporary female narrative. Among her peers who burst onto the scene in that decade, Mary J. Blige retains iconic status in the mainstream while others such as Lauryn Hill battle to come back from relative obscurity. Other Nu-soul stars such as Jill Scott continue to try to live up to exceptional debut albums – her Words and Sounds Vol. 1 was matched in its influence only by D’Angelo’s output a few years back.
Sitting at the back of the circle of this famous old theatre I expected to feel disconnected from the whole experience but I couldn’t have been more wrong. What you could never accuse Ms Badu of is lacking vision – if anything there are too many ideas at times. She came with a choreographed show, multi-coloured lights washing the stage as per the intensity of the music. Black power slogans mixed with messages of peace as the show opened with tracks from the conceptual New AmErykah sounding like a blaxploitation soundtrack fed through a mixer. Three backing singers were decked out in identical Japanese influenced garb and push-up bras, while our host sported a black cocktail dress, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane make-up and a stack of hair balanced in a tall black cone shaped head wrap.
Some laptop bleeps and drum pad noodling aside the effect was generally hypnotic, from a several minutes long jazz-funk intro built around languid guitar and flute riffs, through funk and re-imagined classics such as On & On – sped up considerably on this occasion. Unfortunately the crowd were disappointingly flat and a few left early, maybe the talk of creating musical ‘vortices’ (the plural of vortex as she helpfully pointed out) in major cities around the world was a bit much for some. But the self-professed ‘analogue girl in a digital world’ had a serious point to make. Can an increasingly distracted and information heavy society switch off at any time and ever be genuinely spiritually connected to anything ever again, be it nature, God or the universe? The music seemed to make this point by swamping the senses at times, multi-layered backing vocals repeating phrases like mantras and spoken samples emanting from more than one keyboard. In fact there was so much going at at certain points that the guitar was lost in the mix.
But back to epicentre of this swirling kaleidoscope – what to make of Badu herself? There seemed little doubt that she still has star quality to burn as all eyes followed her when she moved, with every step across the stage seeming considered. She also displayed a witty line in self deprecating humour on the track 'Me', informing the crowd that ‘this year I turned 36, damn it seems it came so quick, my ass and legs have gotten thick.’
She lost the audience briefly with a bizarre anecdote about Mexican communities reclaiming their land – heartfelt but possibly mis-judged – but got them all back on side by teasing with Tyrone, a song dreamed up onstage in London a few years back about a sponging boyfriend. She then defied the venue curfew to play 'Bag Lady' to howls of delight from certain sections of the crowd.
Walking home in the summer air it was clear that Badu really does have the potential to sound like Billie Holiday (while a long list of others are inappropriately judged to have this ability) and is still producing albums with powerful messages and bite. The audience were eventually left eating out of her hand in what was, despite outward appearances, a very well thought out performance. But it’s her imagination that impressed most here. It didn’t all work but you have to admire the sense of old fashioned entertainment that was at the heart of everything.
By Sam Bleazard