Americans love a comeback — always have, always will. It’s in our DNA. We can’t resist the draw of the mythos. And in many ways, the saga of Michael Eugene Archer, alias D’Angelo, details the American comeback story in its truest, saddest, most inspiring form.
Sunday night’s sold-out First Avenue show featured an artist who’s gone through a personal hell, one of random circumstance as much as his own doing, and survived. What we have in the Second Coming tour is a real-life redemption story.
After a short wait, D’Angelo strutted onto the stage in some badass black drapery, hat tipped, wielding this beautiful black guitar with gold inlays — in short, looking like a rock god — and instantly fell into his rhythm. The distinctive raw crunch brought out on new album Black Messiah was present, but with an added vibrancy courtesy the Vanguard’s more-melodious live sound and D’Angelo’s killer stage presence.
Seeing just how much he was enjoying the experience lent some extra soul to the set, and any feelings of uncertainty the audience may have had — basically, will he be into it or is this just an unbearable promotional tour to be trudged through for a guy who's a famous case of the limelight’s destructive qualities — were quelled by D’Angelo’s clear appreciation for everything and everybody who showed up to support him.
It goes without saying both D’Angelo and the Vanguard were on point. The band has the kind of disgusting effortless skill that makes you question your life choices and/or curse your genetic makeup, and D’s got the voice of an angel, of course, those simple, inimitable wails endowed with the universal power to make the hairs stand on end.
It says a lot about a contemporary performer's talent when so many people of so many different ages, races, subcultures, and musical tastes gather to see him, especially when he's been out of the public eye, more or less, for over a decade. This had to be one of the most diverse crowds First Avenue’s hosted, and the reverence with which everyone watched the man is another testament to D’Angelo’s abilities.
As the night’s seamless groove wound down, a question lingered: What would be of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)," the song whose video famously catalyzed the downward spiral that would derail D’Angelo’s career and life. The song is a classic and undoubtedly his biggest hit, but with such an infamous legacy nobody would be surprised if he didn’t play it.
In the end, D’Angelo closed the night with the song, expanding it temporally and sonically so it weaved through the low-key smoothness of its album version through multiple crescendos, never lulling or becoming overbearing. "Untitled" is a song we’ve heard a million times before, yet at First Avenue it was explored so tightly, pieces removed one-by-one as band members took their bows mid-song, that it encompassed the night's spirit all on its own.
More than anything, D’Angelo’s closer and its approach highlighted something inspiring in the man himself — the ability to not only enjoy the piece, but to put so much heart into what undoubtedly stirs up powerful emotions. He gave his band members a chance to exit singularly, shake his hand, and share hugs during this of all songs, until finally it’s just D’Angelo and a keyboard, alone on stage, playing the tune that was at once his greatest triumph and his most defining personal defeat. All this amounts to an incredible musical experience, sure, but it’s also so much more. What’s happening on the Second Coming tour is a transformative life experience, the third act you find prevalent in so much Hollywood bullshit but rarely, if ever, witness in real life.
Critic's bias: Admittedly, I’ve never been the rabid D’Angelo fanatic so many of my friends are, and a big part of seeing this show was to see if he was worthy of the hype. He is.
Notes on the opener: LP Music did what they do — improvised while D’Angelo’s plane landed and he boogied over to First Ave. Questlove helped on drums.
Random notebook dump: I’ll give you a photo or two, but if you take 1,000 photos or full-song videos with your terrible cell phone camera at live shows, I hate you. Everybody behind you hates you. Your photos and videos are going to be awful and you will never watch or look at them again. You’re a bad person. I hope the 14 Instagram likes were worth it.
The crowd: Everybody I’ve ever met in Minneapolis of all subcultures.
Overheard in the crowd: “…” The sound of stunned silence. Truly, this was one of the most captivated crowds I’ve ever seen.