It took the neo-soul idol D’Angelo (aka Michael Archer) some 20 years to tour Australia. Now, having headlined Soulfest 2014, he’s back – this time for Bluesfest, joining other such modern ‘blues’ acts as Kendrick Lamar and Eagles Of Death Metal.
When Archer premièred with 1995’s album Brown Sugar, he kindled the neo-soul phenom – which inspired a young Adele. He followed with 2000’s Voodoo – a classic. Yet Archer then vanished. The charismatic singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer was unsettled about being objectified as a sex symbol. He also battled depression and alcohol and drug issues. Nevertheless, in his absence, Archer inadvertently generated his own mythos.
The Virginian is touring behind his ‘comeback’, Black Messiah, which materialised outta the blue in late 2014. The album, soundtracking America’s renewed civil rights movement (Black Lives Matter), presaged Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Unpredictably, Archer introduced an intense Hendrixian brand of psychedelic rock. And he again won the Grammy for “Best R&B Album”. But, while touring extensively, Archer has maintained his mystique.
He didn’t do press for Bluesfest.
Saturday’s concert at St Kilda’s atmospherically musty Palais was auspicious for Archer’s mini-Australian run. Fans waiting outside at 7pm could hear him finishing his soundcheck.
The support act was Kira Puru – an adventurous, if obscure, choice, considering that the Newcastle native touts her style as “doom-pop”. Puru once led the band The Bruise (and recorded TV’s Redfern Now theme, Lonely Child). Relocating to Melbourne, she’s now pursuing a solo career, liaising with local producer DIV.
Tonight Puru was accompanied solely by a keyboardist, “Dave” (DIV?), and, on playback, echoey drum beats. The chatty – and needlessly nervous – divette apologised for having a “stripped-down version” of her show and no band.
In fact, the combo might have been a goth Yazoo – Puru’s churchy vocals compellingly contrasting the dramatic electronics. Song titles like Misery would arch even Lana Del Rey’s eyebrows for their avant emoisms. Puru closed with 2015’s sublimely melodic single All Dulled Out.
The epitome of the dapper rock star in hat and feather vest, Archer burst on stage at 9.30pm. Outrageously, his seven-piece band The Vanguard flaunted no less than two further guitarists – one, Jesse Johnson, a former member of the Prince-associated funk outfit The Time. Alas, Johnson, wearing a trench, spent the evening at the back. At any rate, Archer, urban counter-revolutionary, is reclaiming rock ‘n’ roll as a black idiom.
The Pentecostal minister’s son opened with a rock-heavy take on Voodoo’s Devil’s Pie. One of many highlights came early with Archer’s falsetto-sung Really Love – the token big ‘single’ from Black Messiah, featuring beautiful Spanish guitar. Archer drew attention to that same album’s socio-political dimension with The Charade, the most deep rock, spurring the crowd to raise their fists in “solidarity” for those caught in the struggle – which they did.
But he hasn’t shed his seductive persona. Midway, Archer performed Brown Sugar – among few ’90s songs remaining in his repertoire. He held out his mic to swooning punters in the front to sing along.
Archer’s supposed finale was a playful rendition of She’s Always In My Hair – a cult ’80s B-side by his hero Prince that he previously cut for the Scream 2 OST (!). However, our hero had planned encores. After a suspenseful wait, Archer reappeared, now with blue hat, on piano – and embarked on a stretched-out Untitled (How Does It Feel). For encore two, he pulled off a hyper-funky, albeit unanticipated, Left & Right (minus the Method Man and Redman raps).
Archer’s Soulfest set felt like a prog-rock jam, the musicians in their own zone. On this night, an assured, restored Archer exhibited his prowess as showman. At points he channelled Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Prince.
Still, in 2016, D’Angelo is himself as much a part of that illustrious history as a product of it.
Gallery: D’Angelo, Kira Puru @ Palias Theatre, Melbourne 2016 / Photos By Darren Tan