When Erykah Badu finally sauntered onto the dank green and mournful purple Verizon Stage last Saturday night, a lady in the next row down trying her best to Periscope our lady’s grand entrance was burned by her app’s signal notification: “Your connection is weak!”
It didn’t take a practitioner of Baduizm to read those tea leaves. After all, we’re here to see The Singular Godmother of Soul in the flesh, the woman so woke it’s a joke, “so deep it gives me the creeps,” the one-and-only Lo Down Loretta Brown whose off-handed mixtape last year, “But You Caint Use My Phone” (with its incredible cover of the artist as a cellular communications Kali with an 8-track yoni) was an extended funk incantation, turning those little black mirrors into their true forms and then charming those transmuted elephants out of the room. So, y’know, all eyes on the queen, please, when her highness is approaching the court.
Anyway, back on stage: Badu, looking fly, comfy and commanding all at once in a pointy Kenzo sweatsuit, flicked out a classroom desk beat on a pair of Akai drum machines to open the show with an extended maximalist jam of “World Keeps Turning,” whose stomp eventually undressed into the feather-light, tongue-twisting (“I’m a recovering undercover over-lover”) ballad “Out My Mind, Just in Time.”
By the time the band slid into the ’90s standard “On and On,” a group of a dozen or so young women had formed an adoration of girls around her feet. As a couple security guards slipped in from the rear, Badu, mid-song, snapped the band to quiet and hushed her voice to that universal mother tone of sharp-fanged politeness: “Excuse me. Let them stay. I need that. It’s important.” The guards retreated from the Badu Mind Trick, our lady glowed at her musical daughters, the crowd went wild, and a rim shot opened the band right back into the chorus as Erykah’s “cypher [kept] moving like a rolling stone.”
That was absolutely the magical high-point of the night, even as Badu and her band — including Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner handling bass — spent the next two hours melting down and recasting her deep catalogue.
As in her albums themselves, swatches of lyrics from her own and other folks’ songs foamed over into the most unexpected places, like one giant slipstream of black and American music.
“20 Feet Tall” took on an extra layer of dissonance; a nostalgic jam on “Friends,” ”La Di Da Di” and ”Gangsta Gangsta” could shake a smirk out of even the most diabolical haters; she bore through a double-feature of the silky “Other Side of the Game” and its classic-banger sequel, “Danger,” Erykah’s own “The Godfather I” and “II,” which casts herself as a long-suffering, then complicit, Kay Adams-Corleone. In between, Badu and company laid down some of the wildest, most challenging musical spectacle you’ll ever see in a major arena in the Bible belt, with generous bars of echo-laden Robert Ashley-styled electronic word art and chugging Can-worthy skronk bubbling out of the speakers.
The night closed with a straightforward recitation of what else but the impeachable “Tyrone,” a song so universally loved that it even lit my own mom onto her feet, all burst in song and wagging her finger at all the invisible Tyrones around the room.
As the purple lights went down and the house lights went up, this brutal year’s most recent Great American Tragedy was still, until we all woke up to Sunday morning’s news, the too-early death of The Purple One, whose spirit was present in the room, as it has been in every room like this since, this time amplified by Badu, that incredible Afrofuturist conduit.