“I appreciate you letting me share my art.” From most any other singer, the comment would have been the height of pretentiousness, but from the mouth of Erykah Badu it didn’t seem the least bit out of line.
Everything the 37-year-old neo-soul survivor brought to Las Vegas on Friday night—her freakishly hip look (fashioned with a reddish-brown ’70s-style pantsuit, a massive bird’s-nest afro and, for the first part of her two-hour set, oversized black-rimmed glasses), her debonair 10-piece backing ensemble (four singers and six instrumentalists), a shrewdly constructed setlist marrying her early R&B hits and her current batch of politicized funk—felt like far more than components of a simple musical performance. This was art, an experience aimed as much at the head as at the ears or feet.
That intention was clear the moment Badu arrived and launched into the first of five consecutive cuts off February release New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) . Risky, sure, but the tightly packed House of Blues crowd responded to the new tunes as if they were old favorites, a tribute to Badu’s dynamic vocal abilities and charismatic stage persona. Playing the part of a modern-day Sly Stone or Chuck D, she steered her band through expert renditions of “Amerykan Promise,” “The Healer” and “Twinkle”—bleak, densely constructed compositions that define the urban experience in 2008 the way The Family Stone and Public Enemy did in their respective eras.
The show’s back half leaned more heavily on past successes—“On & On,” “Otherside of the Game,” “Danger,” “Bag Lady,”—though a dramatically retooled, borderline-electro version of “Apple Tree” and a Badu-as-rapper burst in the middle of “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” reminded that she doesn’t allow vintage material to go stale, either.
If the night lacked anything, it was Badu’s jazzy side. Billie Holiday-inspired numbers “Orange Moon” and “Green Eyes” have been highlights at her House of Blues visits in the past, and considering both have made appearances along this summer’s “Vortex” tour, omitting them from Friday’s menu seemed a strange choice. But of course, even master artistes can use a quick lesson now and again.
The bottom line: ****