What could be more perfectly apropos than an Erykah Badu concert in San Francisco’s Mission District at The Armory—former headquarters for Kink.com—on Valentine’s Day? Fat Belly Bella’s annual sojourn to the Fog City delivered the goods to lovers on so many levels, not the least of which was a two-and-a-half hour tour de force through Badu’s mighty catalog of siren songs. The myriad of musical excursions borrowed the keys to many different vehicles, all rich in nuance and reimagined across a kaleidoscopic quilt that blanketed a California queen-sized bed of bewilderment. In between these fantastic voyages, the mystic witch pontificated aloud from the stage, offering gem after gem of sage wisdom and personalized perspective.
On this blustery February night, patience would be a virtue from start to finish. Beginning with opener Thundercat, a veteran of Badu’s live band who’s quasi-jazz/rock trio battled horrible sound and a chatty audience throughout their engaging set. The TDE affiliate rocked a hot-pink hoodie and wailed on a modified bass that sounded like rock and roll guitar. “Cat” later returned to join Erykah’s group for the entirety of her performance, but not before a one-hundred-minute DJ set that frustrated a good percentage of the sold-out Armory. By the time Erykah took the stage, it was nearly 11 p.m.; the audience grew restless as the band warmed up, and the singer stretched her lungs out with the chorus to “But You Caint Use My Phone”.
Badu had little regard for folks who only came to hear the hits or jams that sound like the radio versions; instead, the star chose to unveil “Hello” drenched in Floydian psychedelia after a lengthy tune-up jam. Soon, the massive hit “On & On” from 1997’s Baduizm arrived to a roar. Badu instructed her band to rewire the song with updated verve while retaining the song’s classic DNA. For those who were unfamiliar with her modus operandi, Badu made it known early and often that she wasn’t interested in whether anyone in the audience would be making it into work in the morning—she was more than content taking her time and ours.
An early highlight saw Badu nod to some fallen heroes of her culture. She led her band through the beginnings of Mobb Deep’s timeless anthem “Shook Ones Pt. 2” and the dearly departed Aaliyah’s sultry swan song “Rock the Boat” before dipping merrily into her own titanic paean to hip-hop “Love of My Life”. Always a barn-burner live, this version would be no different, careening through the vibrant verses and jubilant choruses atop a salaciously funky groove thanks to Badu’s slammin’ band.
Musical director RC Williams led this tremendous troupe in and out of classic call-backs and syrupy samples, from A Tribe Called Quest to Yarbrough and Peoples, all swimming in Soulquarian smooth. Thundercat knew his role and performed it well, locking in with another bass player, a funky drummer, and perfunctory percussionist. Three vocalists backed up Badu, and the bandleader commandeered an MPC and drum pads set up to either side of her at the front of the stage. The vocalists took their solo turns freestyling to Erykah or joining her to layer iridescent harmonies atop her schizophrenic arrangements for the duration of this spiritual workout.
The band set about torching the joint on the bombastic smoke-out “Back in the Day”, the fatback funk scooping the vibe up in its gargantuan back pocket. For the first time this evening, an all-out dance party broke out in the audience, which had thinned a bit. With room to boogie, San Francisco’s finest freaks and funkateers got loose the rest of the way home. Erykah seemed to feed off this audience stimulation, growing more and more animated as the show wore on past midnight. The singer took this opportunity to clutch this intimate audience into her bosom, hold us in the palm of her hand, to open her heart and speak her motherly mind directly to the audience.
Now that her own eldest child Seven (from her partnership with Outkast’s Andre 3000) is old enough to receive this particular dose of musical medicine as an adult—so are all the babies born during her artistic coming of age in 1997, a notion that brings Erykah comfort. The singer repeatedly referenced the twenty-first anniversary of her breakout release Baduizm;she acknowledged that while she’s grateful for her fans born in the 1970’s and 80’s, Badu has been longing for the 90’s babies to grow up and finally receive Baduizm.
As Lo Down Loretta Brown is wont to do, Erykah Badu rearranged her songs with a fervent imagination. She revisited Baduizm chestnuts like “Appletree” and “Tyrone” to a raucous reception, enhancing and sometimes rendering them (nearly) unrecognizable. Per usual, on this night, it would be the deep cuts, those spirited rearrangements, that would fully reveal the unabashed unicorn genius that is BADOULA. Beyond the musical mysticism and her mischievous mind, Badu is style icon—no less than three brilliant outfits were revealed over the course of the two-plus hour celebration.
As a bandleader, Badu has no peer. She’s a descendent of Prince and commands the room like Springsteen, but there is only one analog girl in this digital world. She spoke of her long-lost partner and baby-daddy Andre 3000 before joking that she wrote his lyrics, she then promptly performed a mesmerizing rendition of Outkast’s “Liberation.”
Interspersed between the songs, Badu riffed with a comedic wit and offered priestly benedictions alike. She stressed how in today’s culture, words are somehow less important, and that art, music, drums, and dance are what really bring people together on a unified field of vibration or our collective higher frequency. Badu cautioned against spending energy revisiting the past or focusing on the future, urging each and every soul in that auditorium to invest themselves in the moment, to be here now. By this point, it was nearing 1 a.m., and the remaining third of the audience, stoned and swaying in the night, hung on her every breath.
Badu referenced 4th World War, a documentary that sparked the ideas behind her 2008 masterpiece New Amerykah Part One, and she spent a few good minutes schooling folks on the plight of the Zapatista movement and how she gave birth to “Soldier”. This set upon a massive home stretch that continued with 2011’s stirring “Window Seat” and an all-time take on the Dilla-helmed “Didn’t Cha Know.” Badu recounted some personal memories of the long lost legend, pulling at the strings of every beating heart in the joint.
After the first encore of “Tyrone”, Erykah and her blistering band uncorked (what may be) her signature jam, the boisterous “Bag Lady” from 2000’s shape-shifting Mama’s Gun. Blending in Motown and Kingston tones with aplomb, this one song encapsulated the gutsy gumbo that sets Erykah apart. Pushing beyond the frayed ends of anything resembling of a curfew, Badu continued to wow the remaining factions of slack-jawed lovers and determined dancers. Slow, acapella verses from both “Honey” and the spiritualized “The Healer” had worked us into a dithers, and once again, Sarah Bellum had just the right serum to send us into the night, where she might see us “Next Lifetime”.