Summer was the perfect season for a seductive evening with Joi and Raphael Saadiq at Bimbo’s—they were an electric musical duo, mostly because their approaches to music were so wildly different. She’s seductive, slinky, and scandalous. He’s a few sensual songs away from innocent, coy, and wholesome. Saadiq seemed more inclined to catch the Holy Ghost and make the church—um, club—say “Amen,” while Joi appealed to the juke joint on a Saturday night set. Their musical sensibilities overlapped in their eclectic star appeal, chill-inspiring sincerity, and pure talent. Soul music lovers can’t ask for more than that, and they shouldn’t.
That said, the self-adorned “Star Kitty” claimed the stage with a more-than-revealing ripped black dress and a huge black felt hat. She was the funky pimpstress of the evening, sultry with a hint of sass. Her performance of “Jefferson St. Joe” was rendered as elegantly a praise song should be and throughout “Missing You”, the dim gold lights from the stage and the sparkling bracelets on her wrist set the tone for a night of sophistication. Joi used her training as a dancer to shimmy a little energy into her vocals; she can be powerful and girlish at once (even bitchy if she likes) but always graceful—from her movements to her wails.
Then it was time for a surge of gospel-inspired rhythms, more appropriately, “Gospeldelic”—Saadiq’s concept, complete with a banner at the top of the stage proclaiming its invention. His explanations of the term are vague, probably purposely so. But it’s anything but that “neo-soul” thing, which is pleasant, and in itself makes you want to hear him out. His work precedes him—from dozens of songs with Tony Toni Tone throughout most of the 1990s, when R&B was starting to inherit more of the New Jack Swing than hip-hop style—to his brief but exciting music with Lucy Pearl just two years ago. And though his material from the first trio was what made the show memorable, his new material is nothing to scoff at.
Saadiq emerged on stage with his nine-member band. They were all dressed in black suits with burgundy shirts and white ties. Fedoras, mostly, except for the drummer in the back in a kufi and sunglasses. Saadiq was the only one dressed in all white with a fuzzy camel-colored hat and a guitar. He started the hour-long set with “Be Here”, the first single from his latest release. He was glad to be back near his Oakland hometown, he told the audience, and glad to finally be by himself—he made sure to mention his former groups, Lucy Pearl and Toni Tone Tony. His connection with the audience was impeccable and his voice is more compelling live. But when he began “Still Ray”, a stocky man in a band suit that read “Gospeldelic” on the front in gold came out with a tuba and rocked a stellar solo. It was a sweet moment, only eclipsed in style by the medley of his former hit songs.
The funny thing about Saadiq is that he’s not the most exceptional person you’ve ever seen on stage. But he’s better than good—and he’s been doing this for a pretty long time. But the charisma and the tenderness he evokes in the material is the thing that’s missing from a lot of the so-called “neo-soul.” He doesn’t fit in the ranks of cheesy break-up songs or generic everlasting love ballads. Saadiq has more than a little bit of funk to bring (this is a guy who was in a band with Prince at 16), and is modest to boot—which almost certainly contributes to his longevity.
From “Ask of You” to “Get Involved”, you couldn’t help but feel his genuine appeal. The material supported the theory that Saadiq is not the world’s most fluid or inspirational lyricist, but then, no one really listens to him for that. His newest songs from his latest release, Instant Vintage were slightly compelling—“Be Here” was performed with the same groovy lilt as the recorded version, the same is true for “Faithful”. It wasn’t until the last song, “Tick Tock”—a song about a man tempted by impatience to cheat on his lover—that Saadiq went overboard. There’s something to be said about the improvisation of gospel there, too; when the soloist in a choir starts to harp on the same notes repeatedly, either the song better be wildly inspirational or one of the deacons should commence to throwing him signals.
Saadiq needed a tap on the shoulder to keep a rein on his drawn out digressions from the song (even his back up singers seemed a little disoriented with it). Despite his ten-minute rendition of what could probably be a four-minute song, it was clear that the performance wasn’t in itself an overstatement. It was about waiting and loyalty, almost a metaphor for his success. Conceptually, it was the perfect way to end the evening, even if the execution was aesthetically mundane. It was only a small distraction in the end, though—the songs were still performed more powerfully and with more genuine grit than you’ve heard on the radio or from a host of supposed “neo-soul” crooners in a long time.