D’Angelo lights it up as opener for Mary J. Blige at Verizon Center


Fabled R&B recluse D'Angelo performs at the Verizon Center. (Kyle Gustafson/For the Washington Post)

So this is what a happy-ending-in-progress looks like.

After a decade lost in the chicken/egg purgatory of drugs and writer’s block, D’Angelo is back on the road and in the studio, reportedly chipping away at his third studio album.

A ticket to his Sunday night gig at Verizon Center felt like a permission slip to finally get excited about all of this. Over the course of his hour-long set opening for Mary J. Blige, the 38-year-old Richmond native’s voice sounded as plush and commanding as it did when he cut 2000’s “Voodoo,” the millennial R&B masterpiece that has loomed over him ever since.

On Sunday night, the man looked anything but haunted. Shortly after 8 p.m., D’Angelo materialized near the soundboard, beaming as he strutted through the crowd toward the stage, sporting a fedora he would later toss to expose a sprout of dreadlocks cinched in a black bandana.

Once under the bright lights, he punched hard on the gas with “Left and Right,” one of the bouncier numbers from “Voodoo,” chopping at a blingy, jet-black electric guitar — an instrument Batman might play, if Batman was into rhinestones. “Left and right, up and down,” D’Angelo cooed, pointing around the room, connecting invisible dots in the air.

But with entire sections of Verizon Center’s 400 level curtained off completely, he may have been pointing at empty seats. This wasn’t the triumphant return some fans expected. Tonight, one of the defining voices of a generation was an opening act. He was going to have to work for it.

And he did, slowly trying to evaporate any skepticism the audience may have carried into the building. The set’s most tangible pivot came during a supremely funky rendition of “Chicken Grease” when the singer convinced the crowd to flick fingertips to the rhythm — the way you do when there aren’t any paper towels left in a public restroom.

He was inviting us to get physical in the right-now while asserting his place in a trans-generational soul train that stretches from James Brown to Sly Stone to George Clinton to Prince to him. Throughout the evening, he barked out Brown-like commands, exploded in Prince-ly shrieks and evoked Clinton directly during his 1995 breakout single “Brown Sugar,” allowing the song to casually morph into a cover of Funkadelic’s “Nappy Dugout.”

With 10 songs on the set list, only two cuts were new — and they came from a man whose feet are still planted in tradition and whose head still resides in the clouds of innovation. “Sugar Daddy” was a tightly coiled funk number, accented with false stops and dramatic restarts that he appeared to relish directing.

Even better was “Another Life,” a mesmerizing swirl of psychedelic gospel that D’Angelo promised would appear on the new album expected this year, a recording tentatively titled “James River.”

As he dove into its psychotropic Sunday morning of a chorus, his backing vocalists’ harmonies blended into impossible new colors.

But D’Angelo was at his most riveting when he sang alone. And when he started tapping out the chords to “Untitled (How Does it Feel),” the room erupted. The “Voodoo”-era single is his most-beloved and one that he hasn’t played at every concert this year.

After inhaling a dramatic gust of breath to sing the first line, he leaped up from behind his keyboard, defiantly crossing his arms, basking in screams of protest.

Pleased with his tease, he smiled, settled back into his seat and delivered the sultry ballad with paralyzing precision.

The room had waited years for this moment. D’Angelo knew 30 more seconds wouldn’t hurt.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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