Friday Night: How Could Erykah Badu Possibly Seem Exciting After Janelle Monae?
@The Paramount Theatre, Oakland
June 17, 2010
Better than: Watching old Michael Jackson videos on repeat. (Well, maybe not.)
There were seats all the way up to the front of the stage at the Paramount last night, and at first they seemed silly: A Friday night show in Oakland, with as danceable a bill as they come (you'd think), and a crowd dressed to throw down -- who's gonna sit?
But they were there for good reason.
The seats -- well, the ones with people assigned to them (many didn't have people assigned to them) -- were occupied during the film introducing Janelle Monae's set. As the video stopped and the stage lights went up, three hooded figures onstage shook to the itchy bassline that undergirds "Dance or Die," from Monae's acclaimed conceptual R&B document The ArchAndroid. In the middle of the song, Monae tore off her hood and cape, and her rocketship of a futuristic soul show blasted off. Revealed in her usual white blouse/black pants stage outfit, Monae's caffeinated, Michael Jackson-style whirling dance moves rarely stopped. By the time she and the band shuffled into "Faster," a lot of those seats were just in the way.
The seats became more useless as her set went on: the grooves built up and bounced around the towering, elegant walls of the Paramount ("the best show in town," signs above the doors remind you). Down in front, hip-shakers moved to the aisles for more room. Even the ushers in the back waddled their mid-sections. Monae's soundman was losing it behind the mixing board, bouncing and clapping and yowlping, seeding the crowd's enthusiasm.
Erykah Badu let a DJ play the first 35 minutes of her set, which initially seemed a good strategy. By imploring the crowd to stand and move around ("You don't have to be afraid!") and busting out urban anthems like Mary J. Blige's "Real Love" and Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Who Am I (What's My Name)," he succeeded in getting pretty much the entire house on its feet. But his work was all in vain. After a solid run, the DJ disappeared and Erykah Badu's keyboard player started playing a little two-chord figure on the Rhodes. With the speed of a glacier, the band built up the mellow jazz of the first song. Now everyone was sitting again.
After what felt like another very long time, a figure walked out onstage in the dark, and waved a flashlight around. The figure pointed the flashlight at itself: it was Erykah, dressed in a brimmed hat and a shawl woven with African designs. She sashayed up to the microphone, set down her flashlight like she had nothing else to do, and set off into some tedious, overwrought jazzy songs. It took three of those before Badu and her band finally worked up the mellow, just-barely-beat-driven R&B music that pretty much dominated the rest of their set. I'm not sure the house ever stood up in unison again.
"Window Seat" began promisingly, with the screen behind the stage playing the song's controversial video, and Badu adding a huge, growling bass with a drum machine. The video climaxes with the shooting of a naked Badu near the site of J.F.K.'s assassination, but in a true what-the-fuck moment, the song and video were cut off before they end last night. Some men howled in frustration at not getting to see everything (Badu wore a bra and pants at the cut-off point). The outrage at least got them on their feet.
Personal bias: I have seen lots of shows. But I realized during Monae's striking ballad last night that I may never have seen such a nimble singer live before. The sounds produced by her vocal chords could stop wars. The woman could get by on style and groove alone, but the fact that she's an incredibly versatile and skilled singer puts her on a different level. She also made Erykah Badu's voice sound shrill and raspy. But after Monae's inspired show, much about Badu's set seemed overwrought, indulgent, and even lazy.
Random detail: About three-quarters of the way through her set, Badu let the DJ turn on 30 years of hip-hop hits and started rapping over them. I'll never complain about hearing N.W.A's "Gangsta Gangsta," but it did seem rather strange.
By the way: Janelle Monae is one of two national headliners (the other is Neon Indian) playing with dozens of fantastic local bands (including the Ferocious Few and the Jazz Mafia) at the All Shook Down music festival on July 25. (Presale tickets are $9.43 here.) After seeing her last night, I'm even more excited for this thing.