This year’s Summer Spirit Festival was supposed to be a reunion: Singers Erykah Badu and D’Angelo were scheduled to headline the event, bringing together neo-soul’s two pioneers.
But as fans entered the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on Saturday, they learned that D’Angelo was ill and would not perform (he also missed his Aug. 1 show in New York). Local soul crooner Raheem DeVaughn filled in for D’Angelo and offered a riveting performance.
Undeterred by the switch, Badu offered an expansive performance of her wide-ranging discography. Shortly before 10 p.m., her seven-piece band gave a rousing instrumental of “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” a favorite from Badu’s 2010 album, “New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh.” Then after an extended drumroll, there was Badu front and center, clad in baggy yellow pants, a red and yellow shirt, and dangling headpiece jewelry. She adjusted her top hat, hummed briefly to find the right pitch, and belted the opening line of “20 Feet Tall”: “My love, what did I do/To make you fall, so far from me?” The drums boomed, and Badu’s voice swirled throughout the crowded pavilion.
Badu began her set with newer songs before jumping into older material, including recognized songs from 1997’s “Baduizm” and 2001’s “Mama’s Gun.” She eased into her performance, keeping the crowd at bay with methodical renditions of “My People” and “The Healer.” She unpacked a lengthy rendition of her most notable song, “On and On,” turning it into a sprawling funk jam with rising bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner. Elsewhere, Badu leaned toward sociopolitical content such as “Otherside of the Game” and “Danger,” turning the latter into a high-energy gospel number. After pounding out makeshift beats on her music-production device, she offered a multifaceted take on 2003’s “I Want You,” with the Yarbrough & Peoples song “Don’t Stop the Music” weaved into the mix.
At times, though, songs ended abruptly and others missed the mark, namely the momentum-killing “Dear Misery,” Badu’s unreleased ode to heartbreak. She did a good job performing the song, but it didn’t work behind “Otherside of the Game’s” powerful resonance. Some fans left their seats, and many sat down after standing for almost the entire set. Still, the misstep didn’t dampen Badu’s overall performance.
In the end, she was spacey and unrestrained, enthralling and celestial. Much like her studio work, the live performance took the crowd beyond the scope of traditional soul, to places where hip-hop and electro-funk reside. The crowd went with Badu for the most part, and seemed happy to be along for the ride. “It’s a lot of [expletive] going on right now that I don’t wanna think about,” Badu explained. “I just wanna be here with you.”
Moore is a freelance writer.