All photos by Minh Tran.

Whatever rock D'Angelo has been hiding underneath for the last 15 years has thankfully not caused any lasting damage, as his performance Sunday night at the Crystal Ballroom proved. I'd been fortunate enough to catch D at the Fox Theatre in Detroit during the 2000 Voodoo tour, and it had remained in my memory as one of the best shows I'd ever seen. A part of me was concerned that all these years in exile and addiction had taken their toll on his vitality, but that concern was extinguished in the first 60 seconds of the show. He and his band, the Vanguard, opened with "Ain't That Easy," the lead track on Black Messiah, coming out loud and heavy and not letting up once during the entire show.


The live band consists of the same musicians who recorded on the album, including Jesse Johnson on electric guitar and Pino Palladino on bass (no Questlove, sadly, but Chris Dave was a motherfucker on drums), and they played as though a psychic connection had formed between them and D'Angelo. But by paying close attention you could catch D throwing subtle cues to the band, which you would miss if you as much as blinked. D had already logged multiple shows before his Portland appearance, but he performed as though he had just recently escaped from the fiery furnace and was now duty-bound to preach about it. He shrieked and wailed with all the power of a Pentecostal preacher. I've never seen James Brown in person, but I don't doubt that watching D shout and jump across the stage and nail perfect mic stand kicks must've been what it had been like to witness Mr. Dynamite himself, onstage with the Famous Flames.


As the show progressed, D would disappear between songs and return to the stage with some new accessory, like a cordovan hat and dark poncho for the Spanish-tinged "Really Love," and a hoodie for his politically charged "The Charade." (D paid tribute to the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown, and asked everyone in the audience to raise their fists, which would've been a more powerful image in somewhere like St. Louis or Oakland than in Portland.) When he stripped down to just his black undershirt, I'm not ashamed to admit it was a relief to see he was finally back in fighting shape. The band played mostly from Black Messiah, with the exception of a few songs from Voodoo, and when they played "Brown Sugar," the one song on the setlist taken from D's 1995 debut, it only showcased how far he has come since those early days of the neo-soul boy wonder.

He and the Vanguard came back for two encores, finally ending with his biggest hit/curse, "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)" The crowd, naturally, went apeshit. D sang and played the organ, while one-by-one the band took their leave, each getting loud, appreciative cheers from the crowd before walking over to D and giving hugs and daps. By the end of the song, D'Angelo sat alone behind the organ, while he and the crowd sang the chorus together. It was a touching and triumphant tribute to a man who has been through hell, only to come back stronger than before.