Monday, June 9, 2008

Erykah Badu Gets a Second Chance in Oakland Tonight

By Rachel Swan
Mon, Jun 9, 2008 at 4:28 PM

Erykah Badu doesn't have the "six and change" vocal range of a more lush balladeer like Lalah Hathaway or Rachelle Ferrell, but it's easy to fall in love with her for a number of other reasons: the Austin Powers outfits; the nasal, Billy Holiday texture of her voice; the Afro that careens in every direction. Unfortunately, such attributes didn't quite cut it at last night's Paramount show, even though Badu had everything set up to really manhandle an audience -- from the cute back-up singers to the choreographed dance moves to aptly chosen drummer Chris Dave (who's also held rhythm section duties for Mint Condition and Bilal). The problem was that she chose to ignore those assets, and instead build an entire show around wailing, drawn-out high notes. The result was a bit like watching a jazz saxophonist who tries to cram as many notes as possible in the space of a single measure, if only to show off his chops. It just made everyone tired.

Erykah Badu doesn't have the "six and change" vocal range of a more lush balladeer like Lalah Hathaway or Rachelle Ferrell, but it's easy to fall in love with her for a number of other reasons: the Austin Powers outfits; the nasal, Billy Holiday texture of her voice; the Afro that careens in every direction. Unfortunately, such attributes didn't quite cut it at last night's Paramount show, even though Badu had everything set up to really manhandle an audience -- from the cute back-up singers to the choreographed dance moves to aptly chosen drummer Chris Dave (who's also held rhythm section duties for Mint Condition and Bilal). The problem was that she chose to ignore those assets, and instead build an entire show around wailing, drawing high notes. The result was a bit like watching a jazz saxophonist who tries to cram as many notes as possible in the space of a single measure, if only to show off his chops. It just made everyone tired.

It was apparent from the jump that this concert was going to be more about showmanship than sound quality. Supporting act the Roots — who helped propel Badu to fame, and are now consigned to open for her — played a raucous half-hour rock set, during which rapper Black Thought and drummer ?uestlove appeared to be locked in competition. ?uestlove won since his snare easily overpowered the vocal mic, much to the chagrin of any audience member who actually came to hear some hip-hop. Their set was energetic and fun to compensate for what it lacked in musical depth, but it didn't augur well for the headliner to come.

Badu took the stage roughly an hour later, wearing a red and black plaid suit and tie. Her band was killin — particularly the aforementioned drummer and four backup singers who actually did most of the vocal work. They stood alongside an electric bass, guitar, keyboardist, flute, conga player, and DJ, who added scratches and played instrumental tracks on a laptop to fill out the drum and keyboard parts. The set-up was dizzying and spectacular: red and blue strobes; green dappled stage lights; and glamour mirrors set up in back of the band to give a funhouse effect.

Musically, however, the show didn't quite hit. Most of that had to do with the song structures. A lot of the vamps were too long and not very interesting, and there was always a moment in the middle when Badu would hit an extended vibrato high note — which was impressive the first couple times, but got tiresome over the course of an evening. Her voice has a coarse, vintage quality that usually gives the songs a lot of texture, but in this case the vocal mic was turned up too loud, making it difficult to hear the obviously-talented backup singers. Also, the sound quality was such that anyone sitting in orchestra could hear all the treble harmonies and practically no bass, so the chord changes on "Other Side of the Game" sounded a lot more dissonant — jazzier, if you will — than in the recorded version.

If one thing can be said for Badu, she does know how to command and audience. Onstage she took several indulgent drum solos, often stopping the band so she could get busy with a pair of shakers, plunk a funky bassline on her synthesizer, or bang an African drum with a mallet. At one point she had the audience clap out a simple son clave beat, which led into "Danger," probably the best song of the night (except that the breakdown was a little superfluous). The show was basically all screams wafted on heavy percussion, which had a lot of people going for the better part of an hour. The beats were so funky, in fact, that at one point two B-Boys went breakdancing down the orchestra aisle. Had she sprinkled the hits in a little earlier in the evening, shortened the vamps, and not saved her political speech for the very end (by which time everyone was already getting restless), Badu would have pulled it off. Perhaps she's learned something for tonight's performance.

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