Erykah Badu may not have released an official studio album in a dozen years, but she remains an unstoppable creative spirit, not to mention entrepreneur.
During the pandemic years she’s kept pretty busy, hosting a station on Sonos Radio, launching her own livestreaming platform, and executive-producing a forthcoming documentary about her dear friend, collaborator, and high-school classmate—the late jazz trumpet phenomenon Roy Hargrove—not to mention unveiling a popular strand of incense inspired by her, umm… ill na na.
Yet Badu is an artist first and foremost, a musician and songstress with a catalog of beloved compositions that have made an indelible impact on the lives of people around the world for three decades. Erykah remains a brilliant and idiosyncratic live performer who meticulously concocts her own patented hybrid style of R&B and hip-hop, equal parts Zen mysticism and sound of the streets.
This writer was lucky to take in a good chunk of her performance last month at the Congo Square Stage at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a headlining slot on the second Saturday of the festival. It was excruciatingly hot and humid that afternoon, and though her performance was typically tremendous, the experience somewhat suffered from the suffocating sun. I was certainly looking forward to a proper spellbinding seance in the balmy Bay Area, within the glorious confines of UC Berkeley’s William Hearst Greek Theatre.
On an unusually warm late spring Friday evening, Erykah Badu returned to a sold-out Greek for the eighth concert on her current Live From the Badubatron tour. The ever-whimsical sorceress unveiled a streamlined, reimagined version of her greatest hits set that leaned toward popular numbers from her famed 1997 debut LP Baduizm.
Bay Area fans were treated to a short, potent opening set from Noname, who was performing for the first time in a couple of years, a fact she acknowledged both on Instagram, and from the stage. Suffice to say after such a long public absence, fans were extremely stoked to see Noname live and direct in her artistic element.
After a few numbers delivered solo, the beloved Chicago-based singer, emcee, activist, and poet invited fellow Windy City native Saba and St.Louis’s Smino to the stage to perform as the trio Ghetto Sage. The crew broke out their new joint “Häagen Dazs”, plus a medley of previous cuts that succeeded in getting the crowd hyped, and reminded them why Noname was so buzzed about before her chosen extended hiatus.
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Following Noname’s opening set, Badu’s band emerged and took their places on the stage, rocking white tees worn beneath bright lemon-yellow coveralls that looked striking in the stage lights. They began with some afrobeat grooves, then some Miami bass before segueing first into a jam based on Badu’s “American Promise”, then into a hip-hop flavored take on James Brown’s iconic “Sex Machine”. Despite imploring the packed theater to “get on up”, complete with demonstrative gesturing from the backing vocalists, the majority of the audience stayed seated.
So many, in fact, that the band wound it back down to a silence before an awkward fifteen minutes of nervous anticipation that may have cost us a few songs.
After the crowd thought it cool to turn on their cell phone lamps in unison and chant, instead of—I dunno—taking to their feet like we were asked, the band again started up “Sex Machine” at around 9:45 p.m. More get on ups, to more mixed results.
An enormous image of an Egyptian scarab with the initials “EB” was projected above the musicians. Eventually Badu strutted onstage at her own pace, leisurely smudging the space with sage whilst looking positively ravishing in a glistening gold coat with long fringes, a towering black hat atop her long tresses, and some wild boots to boot.
As has been her custom of late, Badu warmed things up with “Hello”, from her 2016 mixtape release U Caint Use My Phone, itself a psychedelic reading of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” She sipped a large cup of tea as she positioned herself between drum machines and a microphone at the front of the stage, holding the entire Greek in the palm of her high priestess hand from the moment she finally graced us.
After “Out My Mind, Just in Time”, Erykah took the opportunity to stress the following rule of Badubatron: “Mind Ya Bizness” before steering her ensemble into Faith, Hope & Charity’s “To Each His Own. The group deftly segued into the celestial combo of “On & On” from her debut, naturally chased by “ ..& On” from her sophomore opus Mama’s Gun.
The latter took us all the way to church and nearly caught the holy ghost, with a stop at the park for a cardboard breakdance sesh and a few bars from Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” for good measure. After that funky outro, a spirited run through “Love Of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)”, found on 2003’s Worldwide Underground, got some asses finally shakin’, and some smiles beaming to one of Erykah’s most heartwarming love songs.
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A super sexy, synthed-out dip into “Phone Down” was dropped in somewhat of a steamy, chopped-n’-screwed style. With another neat segue, Badu and company unspooled the evening’s centerpiece, a scintillating sojourn through “Otherside of the Game”. Still drenched in relevant realism, “Otherside of the Game” tells the familiar tale of a fracturing love affair between a frustrated woman and a drug dealer, she who loves without condition, he who takes care at a karmic cost. This gripping, personal purge is also found on her monumental first record, and was delivered both faithfully to the original, and spiced with an updated arrangement fluent in Dilla Time.
Badu reshuffled her band members not long ago, now wielding a 10-piece ensemble complete with deejay and four secondary vocalists. Erykah tossed the Musical Director keys to drummer/percussionist Frank Moka, the lone instrumental holdover from her previous crew. Longtime backing vocalists like Durand Bernarr remain on the squad, so the sounds of the Badubatron band were a sweet mix of the familiar and the fresh, making more well-worn numbers come alive once again.
In between songs, the singer wasted far less time than normal; she seemed intent to keep things moving in a steady flow, instead of the various starts and stops of her longer, deeper, and more ambitious sets. Though occasionally, Erykah simply couldn’t help herself, and she had to bug out on the drum pads every now and again—probably just because she could, though frankly she’s gotten pretty damn good.
Badu did babble a bit about some of the same things she always does, specifically wondering aloud what decade her fans were born in, their connection to the Baduizm album, and what they’ve gleaned from their relationship to those songs. Badu has long been a proponent of maintaining the oral tradition. Somehow she also managed to do an about face from the real talk to riff on the theme of a “Cocksuckers Ball”, set to a tune that mimicked early ’60s soul styles à la The Clovers.
“Window Seat”, the lead single from New Amerykah Part Two, was revealed with a rather sublime arrangement that kept the same midtempo groove that had been established for most of the night intact. With more kaleidoscopic projection-mapped psychedelic art illuminated above the band, Erykah pranced and crooned into the crescent moon. Though as the 11:00 p.m. hard curfew rapidly approached, Badu did appear to race through the final few at a swifter-than-usual pace.
Fat Belly Bella sent the faithful home with a four-pack of Baduizm slow jams. She broke out a couple of deeper cuts from the debut including the dusty, soothing, scat-filled “No Love”, then transformed from mystic to chanteuse and slipped in a mickey with the certified singalong “Certainly”. Badu saved a pair of her most popular joints to close things out—the penultimate “Next Lifetime” has remarkable staying power, stunning with yet another sultry arrangement of the classic.
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After a few words that hinted towards goodbye, Badu gave the people what many of them had come for, a crowd-assisted duet of her first smash single, “Tyrone”. While fans mimed telephone calls and wagged index fingers harder than Dikembe Mutumbo, the empress strutted around the stage barefoot and blowing kisses to the adoring throngs belting out her biggest song. A smiling Erykah graciously bowed, offering a brief, priestly benediction on togetherness before disappearing backstage and into the moonlit night.
While this Badu set was a bit shorter in length than what hardcore fans have grown accustomed to, it was a lean, streamlined, tightly performed greatest hits set, with a couple of potent deep cuts for the heads. Several of her tunes were remixed or rearranged in some fashion, not to mention numerous slick segues, funky , and cascading multi-layered vocal harmonies.
Sure, there were quite a few jams on the slower side, too. I tend to think that the lackadaisical crowd vibe and relative lack of dancing early in the game may have affected how the singer chose to steer the show. I too would have greatly appreciated a run through “Back in the Day”, “Honey”, or “Bag Lady”, each in the rotation on the Live From the Badubatron tour. And it’s a bit of a headscratcher that ethereal mainstay “The Healer” appears to have been scratched from current setlists altogether. Then again, Erykah is still working in a relatively new backing band, and the tracks that they are performing sound thrilling and incandescent, occasionally even reborn.
But alas, given all that we have collectively lived through of late, I prefer to place my focus on gratitude, for the gift of live music and the blessing of an Erykah Badu concert. Hers is the name on the marquee, and homegirl should do as she damn well pleases. Instead of lamenting too hard on what once was or maybe could’ve been, I’ll give thanks for the songs she chose to sing for us, and gladly show up next time Badubatron slides through the Bay.
Setlist: Erykah Badu | William Hearst Greek Theatre | Berkeley, CA | 6/10/22