@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.The crowd sat during one quiet number. The band's longhaired guitarist wrenched a jazzy, futuristic solo out of his black axe before Monae returned onstage to sing some aching ballad over his playing. Monae's voice is a thing to behold: it can punch like trebly concrete, flutter like a dreamy gospel bird, or howl like some disturbed indie rocker. Here the soundman again baited the crowd from behind his board: "Sing it, girl!" he would shout into the stunned, silent room, when Monae pointed up into her wavering, high-register vocal runs. By the end the crowd was back on their feet. Monae later launched into "Tightrope," the dream-of-a-groove single she made with OutKast's Big Boi, which pressed the audience into demonstrating every crumb of funk in the song's nibbling bassline. Even the white people were dancing. "Tightrope" sounded even funkier live (the Paramount's PA delivered each throng of bass required), and again, the room's seats became a barrier to the experience. Especially when, at the end of the song, Monae suddenly jumped off the front of the stage with two dancers and bolted -- as the crowd exploded in cheers and cameras chased behind them -- out the front door, never to return.
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.Even the highlights of Badu's set were marred by missteps. It was sort of cool that she rejected the performer's code of looking fancy onstage by wearing a yellow T-shirt and pajama pants underneath her shawl. (Her backup singers wore short skirts and low necklines.) But Badu apparently wasn't inspired to dance much other than swaying near her mic, and sometimes during instrumental parts she walked around the stage looking bored. Her laptop sat on a table nearby and spoke oops-worthy updates during the songs ("The time is now 11:30"). I wondered if it was there so she could check her email.
"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.Musically, Badu and Co. issued song after song of jazzy, midtempo R&B -- her longstanding style. A few times the large band (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, keys, backup singers, flute, and more) seemed to stumble, although these may have been attempts at artiness. Better-known numbers got big parts of the crowd up and swaying, but rarely did the energy level reach the heights it had with Monae, or even with Badu's DJ alone. Those seats turned out to be a good idea.
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.