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The Love Manifesto
Mama’s little baby is a dancer and a crooner but our brown baby is the saving grace of the so-called neosoul movement not a tragic minstrel shaman trapped in the nineteenth century’s burnt cork tradition. Miraculously, Donnie is eluding the shackles of vaudeville to bring his message undiluted to the masses. This cosmic dancer, ladies and gentlemen, is the forerunner of the Love Movement for real, slow but sho’ ascending to join his brethren Arthur Lee, Jimi Hendrix, Fela et al on high.
30 Jun 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
To start, the six-piece band was cloaked in the vestments of freedom. The singer wore a tie-dyed shirt, jeans, purple Chuck Taylors and a lavender multicolored knit chapeau worthy of Sly Stone at his best. The Atlanta soul star now signed to Motown, the label of his cousin Marvin Gaye, found his sartorial splendor reflected in his Bowery audience: mostly groovy young black bohemians sporting dreadlocks and dashikis and glorying in the singer’s every breath and sigh. Albeit briefly, Donnie (né Donnie Johnson) found some small semblance of the Promise’Land on the Rotten Apple’s Lower East Side. The dark tiered space of the Ballroom throbbed virtually as one heartbeat pulsing with feeling for him and the pearls dispensed by his educational compositions—“Beautiful Me”, “Cloud 9”, “Big Black Buck”—by his impassioned preaching amidst the music.
No matter their age or background, the folk of African descent present last Monday evening seemed to unite on an axis with Donnie as the omniscient Promethean figure bold as love—a feat we people darker than blue seem unable to manage in the real world the singer has tried to warm with his magnificent set piece “Heaven Sent”. Although white fans were scarce—- an oddity for this hall known mostly as a bastion of independent rock, indeed a hang for the New Rock City types and their national satellites—and most in the house appeared to be label types convening above in the balcony safe from the giddy, boogying Amen Corner, all were joined in the healing power on hand made plain in such lyrics as: “Happy to be nappy / Black and I’m proud / . . . Be proud of your cloud! / You’ve got to believe in who you are . . .”
From opening with “Our New National Anthem”, just in time for Independence Day, Donnie and his rainbow hued band held all in sway, veering periodically into reggae and the outskirts of jazz which his other esteemed relative, Les McCann, has excelled at. This time out he was accompanied by three brothers on background vocals in red, yellow and orange shirts respectively, their churchy pipes matching the brightness of their threads. The trio perfectly complemented the band anchored by mainstays Justin Ellington (pianoman and producer) and fluid-armed Omar Phillips on drums (whom Donnie met at church), as well as providing sanctified response to their fearless leader’s call. Sadly, we were not treated to the still young man’s mighty interpretive gift, his uncanny ability to reframe classics you thought you knew; here’s a vote for his next Northeast run to feature Hathaway’s “Love, Love, Love” and perhaps even some of the quirkier Gaye catalogue (such as selections from the underrated Here My Dear). Nonetheless, Donnie’s heart-stopping renditions of his own material must’ve gone far to eliminate all listeners dearly held prejudices about the current generation’s inability to attain the dizzying heights of classic soul Olympus.
Donnie was not solely strident and political. He also promised “love music” and gained some of his loudest response for slow jams “Rocketship” and the one most clamored for as encore “Turn Around”. Personally, I favored “You Got a Friend”, a gorgeous song from earlier days in Hot’lanta which has become somewhat scarce during Donnie’s Gotham appearances. This lack and the fact he has yet to graduate to the Allmans Zone—meaning no three hour performances as yet—are the sole complaints. Thus far, Donnie’s move forward to major label status, in-stores and guest spots on Soul Train has not ruined him; he remains the humble, brilliant seeker employing his music in the service of the African Diaspora’s liberation. In comparison to the bling-bling death’s heads of Diddy and Jigga, Donnie doesn’t spout off relentlessly about getting paid nor other antisocial triumphs. Although he admitted to being reluctant to perform on this occasion and alluded to illness, he rallied his spiritual clarity and inner strength to share his hard-won wisdom with the people and they effusively loved him for it. His mission was best articulated in the set’s midpoint: “Welcome to the Colored Section”. With its message of gaining true perspective on the bloody history of the West as well as advocating flesh and soul uplift in the face of oppression and perennial adversity, this masterpiece will prove to be his most enduring legacy.