He was joking, but only sort of. Depending on which staff member you asked last night, D'Angelo was supposed to go on at 9, 9:30, 10 or "whenever he damn well pleased." Smart money on the latter. When the elusive singer arrived, his grin as wide as his black fedora and taking his position behind an intimidating array of various keyboards, no one seemed to notice the time.
"Lower your expectations," Questlove half-joked. "We just brothers having fun." This was not the D'Angelo at last year's Made in America festival who performed two new songs and kept it light on the covers. This was D's Bonnaroo coming-out party reduced and reduxed. With no guests or other musicians, the duo, known tonight as Brothers in Arms, went through a 75-minute set that felt as much improv jam session as full-fledged show, blending 1970s soul covers (Bobby Womack, Ohio Players) with tracks from the singer's first two albums.
Opening with Sly & the Family Stone's "Let Me Have It All," Questlove, a longtime friend and collaborator working on D'Angelo's upcoming album, looked like the proud parent watching his child ride a bike for the first time. Thirteen years after the release of his last album Voodoo, D'Angelo, now hampered with one of music's most fraught backstories, is still taking baby steps into the light.
Tonight, even moreso than Bonnaroo and Made in America, he appeared confident, exuberant and genuinely enthralled to work the sold-out crowd. Far from elusive, the singer exhorted the audience to sing the second verse of Sly's "(You Caught Me) Smilin'." We duly obliged.
Not that Quest was playing the humble sideman. "My name is Questlove, so I know I'm loved. Let him know that he's loved," said the drummer after "Really Love," the only new D'Angelo song performed. "If you don't do that, you're going to be waiting [for a new album] until 2042."
D'Angelo's voice, his main weapon, hasn't lost its ability to cause pregnancies on the spot, shifting from the preacher tones of Bobby Womack's "A Woman's Gotta Have It" to the falsetto that can still elicit a sea of screams. With his array of keyboards doubling as electric guitar and bass, D'Angelo's ability to manipulate his keyboard army to sound like a full band was as visually stimulating as Quest's childlike enthusiasm. He is soul music writ large.
"Is the record almost finished?," asked Quest near the end of the show. "Yes," replied D'Angelo, one of the only words he would say tonight in his non-singing voice. The news wasn't new, but hearing him say it, for the first time, codified what everyone already assumed.
But it's not just the Detoxian expectations of a long-overdue album. Armed with only two albums and introspective humility, D'Angelo, more than most artists who have succumbed to music's excesses, has become the people's champ; the archetypal "tortured artist" who rarely has a happy ending. It's telling that he chose to perform a cover of The SOS Band's "Tell Me If You Still Care." As the floor shook in anticipation of the duo's encore—a rousing version of "Lady" from his 1995 debut Brown Sugar—the answer was obvious.