And there he was. Michael Eugene Archer, in his first U.S. performance in more than a decade, looking confident, enthusiastic and ready to perform.
There were rumors of D'Angelo's appearance, but it's hard to gauge if the massive crowd knew of the singer's performance or that Bonnaroo attendees flock to anything with the word "jam" in it.
Backed by a nine-piece band, including pioneering rock bassist Pino Palladino, longtime Roots collaborator James Poyser and Jesse Johnson, original guitarist for 1980s funk group The Time, D'Angelo led the group through an all-covers set that included Band of Gypsys' "Power of Soul," Funkadelic's "Hit It and Quit It," the Beatles "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" and Led Zeppelin's "What is and What Should Never Be." "I don't know you, but can I hug you?," asked the man next to me. "This isn't real." (I obliged.)
"This is what we used to do at the studio," Questlove told the crowd of the setlist, referring to the crew's lengthy jam sessions at New York's Electric Lady Studios. "Just go through the favorites and see what ideas come. It's very spontaneous." "Jam" was the most appropriate word to describe the set, which saw D'Angelo alternate between keyboards and guitar. Questlove has long been known as much as a facilitator as musician, but tonight's show felt like old friends hanging out on stage—no more, no less—and we were the voyeuristic peeping toms lucky enough to peek through the hole in the fence.
After inching back into the spotlight with a string of well-received European shows, D'Angelo proved his voice—that honey falsetto that damn near makes everyone quiver—hadn't diminished with time or lack of use. When the singer opened with Jimi Hendrix's "Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland)," you could see a collective, "Is this really happening?" vibe forming in the crowd. Guys high-fived each other. Girls (and at least one guy) hugged. After numerous arrests, false album starts and rumors, D'Angelo appears ready to finally pick up where he left off with 2000's Voodoo.
"You were here; you saw it," Questlove told the crowd afterwards, perhaps thinking the same surprised thoughts as most of us (it was hard for Quest to hide the giant grin on his face throughout the set). "We crammed all those songs into six hours of rehearsal. Our 'dinner break' was tonight's Roots show." (The band played the What Stage earlier that evening.)
D'Angelo is set to perform at July's Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Most likely, it will be more structured than the superjam. But perhaps playing familiar songs with familiar faces was exactly what the singer needed to regain his confidence before re-entering the fame machine. Toward the end of the set, the singer swayed his arms left to right, encouraging the crowd to do the same. It's a routine gesture we've all seen countless times, but rarely has it felt more vital and significant.
D'Angelo, "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" (Live at Bonnaroo)