To watch Michael "D'Angelo" Archer live is to understand why his hiatus devastated an entire musical movement. The purveyors of that neo-soul movement, they sit here in The Pearl at The Palms, where he serves as a sort of co-headlining opener for Mary J. Blige. Tonight those onlookers look like church ladies and social workers, lenses thick and braids tight. They still feel the music quaking the bones that used to carry them to classes and late-night performances, back when his debut album Brown Sugar had just come out. That was 17 years ago. Now their younger selves are here, wrapped in little dresses, frothing over the title track of that album. Their boyfriends and husbands won't figure out why they paid for tickets until later this evening.
The set starts out heavy. Like Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic heavy — the product of D’Angelo’s exposure to a lot of old rock — Zeppelin, Hendrix, Beatles — over the last decade, hinting at the upcoming album with the funk-jam “Sugar Daddy.” But over the million-piece drum set, the beer-rippling bass guitar, comes The Voice. It’s like a church organ rests in his chest, blowing out throaty shouts in a '70s yowl that die down to the silky falsetto that put 2000's Voodoo right next to R.Kelly’s 12 Play on late-night mixtapes. After Marvin Gaye and Prince, D’Angelo’s is a voice that has only been mimicked since his beginning; trying to name modern influences of D’Angelo is impossible — he is the influence.
Midway through the set, everything goes black. The spotlight goes up. Roosting at a piano-capped podium sits D'Angelo, easing into "Cruisin'," the other single from Brown Sugar. All girls, the social workers, the New Jacquelines, stand to help. He trails off as the crowd sings louder, the two sonic line graphs bisecting somewhere around "I love it when we're cruising together." It's like he escapes into himself, figuring out what comes next, him sitting there alone at his piano. But he already knows what comes next. What has to come next. And so does the audience.
The music video for "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)" is flagged as age-restricted based on YouTube's Community Guidelines. It's D, by all accounts jay-bird naked (though the shot cuts off just below his jutting hip bones), standing against a black background, sweating and screaming in the way a man screams when he comes to fruition in an empty house (or, as D would put it later, when he thinks about God and his grandmother's cooking). And because of that, D'Angelo made an unwilling switch from neo-soul apostle to hard-bodied heartthrob, something that, sure, made him a star. But it also made him lock up, freak out, shy away from everything and everyone, melting him into a puddle of addiction and surplus poundage. And even now, so many years later, tightened back up on his first tour in years, the only things he takes off are a leather vest and a fedora.
And then the moment happens. It's subtle. Just a chord. A collection of notes that could start a hundred songs. But it's the way he hits it. Hard. Like he's going to play Beethoven's Fifth. And because of that it can only be one song. Screams wash over the seats, now empty, their occupants standing, so the man can know they know his words. They feel them. The next chord isn't hard. He climbs into it. He slinks. He perspires into "Untitled." He barely sings any words. The women, his generations of fans, sing it, word for word, in unison, for him, while he sways and beats on the piano keys.
That's the climax. There's more — the long, looping and solo-jammed hits — but the moment came and he's already spent. He's loving it. He even loves it when he showed his real stage rust, pushing out his mic stand and stomping on the base, like a rake in the yard, to make it return to his grip. But misses, sending the mic and stand tumbling into the audience. He stands, grins sheepishly and shrugs. And it's charming. Because right then, he isn't D'Angelo the sex symbol. He's Michael Archer, and it's like he's saying, "Hey. I know I haven't been around for a while. Sorry. Glad you're here, though." And really, with him wrapping up his first album in over a decade, and moving through his first tour in just as long, what else can we ask of him?