D'Angelo mesmerizes at stunning Royal Oak show

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
D'Angelo performs Saturday night at Royal Oak Music Theatre.

D'Angelo works according to his own clock. So during his magnificent concert Saturday night at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, the enigmatic R&B singer had no problem making the audience wait a few extra beats before he started into his 2000 smash, "Untitled (How Does it Feel)."

Cool and calm, the titan sauntered to the front of the stage, grabbed his microphone and took a deep breath, only to walk away when he found the timing wasn't quite right for him yet. He repeated this process again and again, teasing the audience – and his band – a little bit more each time, before finally settling into the song's soulful, easygoing groove. "Girl," he sang, "it's only you…"

It was worth the wait, just as the long-dormant singer's return to active duty has been worth the wait. "Black Messiah," D'Angelo's third album which was surprise-released in December, completed a comeback several years in the making, realigning a career that looked directionless following the vanishing act he pulled in the wake of 2000's "Voodoo."

Not only does "Black Messiah" deliver, it's a timely and poignant stew of funk, soul, hip-hop, jazz and gospel that addresses the civil unrest of our times, making a powerful statement on race, violence and the power of music. After a decade and a half off, D'Angelo proved himself as vital as ever.

Saturday's electrifying two-hour, 15-minute potboiler – the singer's first Metro Detroit concert since a 2012 DTE Energy Music Theatre date with Mary J. Blige and his first local headlining show since an August 2000 concert at Chene Park – featured a liberal sampling of "Black Messiah" as well as a handful of songs from his early years.

As a performer he's magnetic, leading his 10-piece band the Vanguard with precision while controlling the crowd like a true master of ceremonies. Part James Brown and part Prince, he's able to guide his voice from a soulful scream to a bluesy falsetto in just a few notes. On stage, he frequently flashes his wide, beaming smile, and looks truly happy to be back in control and in his element.

He opened Saturday's show with "Ain't That Easy," the leadoff track from "Black Messiah," one of several songs that acted as a warm-up as D'Angelo and the Vanguard began erecting their tower of funky R&B. They stoked those fires for the first hour, through "Betray My Heart," "Spanish Joint" and the sweet bedroom come-on "Really Love."

D'Angelo instructed fans to raise their fists in the air during "The Charade," which he dedicated to "all the countless victims of police brutality," as well as the nine victims of the shooting rampage in a South Carolina church earlier this month. "The Charade" built to a rousing climax and bubbled over into "Brown Sugar," D'Angelo's debut hit which was released 20 years ago this month.

By this point in the night the band was really cooking, and a jam of "Black Messiah's" "Another Life" and "Back to the Future" – which ended with D'Angelo calling out a wild 45-count to his band – closed out the evening's first set. The band returned and put a long, extended spin on the "Voodoo" tracks "Left & Right" and "Chicken Grease," while D'Angelo slapped hands with fans, swung his microphone stand around the stage and performed choreographed dance moves with his band members. He was having a blast and the feeling was contagious.

"Untitled (How Does It Feel)," which stretched past the 15-minute mark, was the final encore and the exclamation point on the evening. After the extended intro, D'Angelo and his bandmates built the song into a raging fire, and then broke it down an element at a time as each of his bandmates exited the stage one-by-one. The technique, which it's a wonder Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band haven't picked up yet, highlighted the craftsmanship and the musicianship that steered the engine all night long, as well as the importance of the contributions of each individual on stage. Alone at the end was D'Angelo, fingering his keyboard and playing the night's final notes. He stood up, took a bow and walked off stage.

For how long, who knows. Should he be back soon, he gave fans plenty of reason to be excited for more, and if he's gone for long, Saturday was a rich, powerful and rewarding goodbye. As for the question posed by "How Does it Feel," that one's easy: It felt awesome.