Dynamic singing, odd behavior

Music Review

May 12, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

There's no other artist in mainstream R&B right now who synthesizes her influences as dynamically as Erykah Badu. Her albums -- especially her latest, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) -- often swirl with vivid strains of hip-hop, '70s funk, jazz-fusion, vintage blues and whatever else the Dallas singer-songwriter feels like throwing in the mix. Yet the results coalesce into a singular sound that is unmistakably Badu.

On stage, her musical melding comes alive, tempered with down-home, amusingly profane banter and clumsy theatrical touches. Although her Saturday show at Pier Six Concert Pavilion was musically impressive, a few head-scratching moments undercut the emotional potency of her remarkably odd songs.

Following a vibrant hourlong set by the Roots, who sounded more progressive-rock than hip-hop, Badu strutted onstage as her fine 11-piece band, which included a DJ, played the trance-inducing groove to "My People," a cut from New Amerykah.

Forever idiosyncratic with her clothes, the singer wore a strapless mini-dress with accordion-style ruffles, black tights and a feathery hat. The look was actually a bit subdued for her, given Badu's penchant for huge, messy Afro wigs and mile-high platform boots.

Vocally, the four-time Grammy winner was stellar, spicing the end of "The Healer" with Chaka Khan-like wails. But the pacing of Badu's show started to sputter about midway. At the end of "Twinkle," one of the murkiest songs on the new album, a guy in an orange headdress strolled out and gave a brief speech in an indecipherable language while holding an ankh. It was perhaps the strangest moment in the three-hour show.

But Badu quickly made things more accessible again, launching into her first hit, 1997's "On & On." During the second half of the show, she and her musicians spontaneously remixed elements of her songs.

Roy Ayers and early hip-hop samples played by the DJ smoothly blended with the music of the band. "Appletree," for instance, was re-imagined with the bass and synth lines from "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force.

But, again, the impressive music and vocals were marred by weird theatrics. During Badu's performance of "Green Eyes," the dramatic, emotionally naked song that ends 2000's Mama's Gun, the artist sang on her knees while playing with two big red balls.

Behind her, the four backup singers made waves out of yards of blue and green fabric. Badu tossed the balls about, twirled around and hammed it up with one of the security guards at the front of the stage -- all while singing the aching ballad. None of it made much sense and it ultimately took away from the power of the song.

But it's clear that Badu sees the stage as her own playground, where the music twists and turns in unexpected directions. She's always very much in the moment -- even if everybody else doesn't quite know what she's up to.

Rashod.Ollison@baltsun.com

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