City: New York Venue: BB King's Blues Club & Grill Date: 2003-05-29
It was Time Warp time again as the curious after-work and Black Boho throngs crowded the King Club in Times Square to witness the year's overdue return of one of the hottest R&B stars of the 1980s. In the eight years or so gone since the former Terence Trent D'Arby (now going by Sananda Maitreya) played stateside, the Southeastern native son turned Europe-based expat has missed the neosoul trend he inadvertently midwifed with his debut Introducing the Hardline According To... as it burgeoned into a nationwide phenomenon with D'Angelo and his baby mama Angie Stone at the vanguard. This same time period has also seen his most gifted contemporary/heir, Mark Anthony Thompson a.k.a. Chocolate Genius, struggle for his due recognition on the world's stage, and the erstwhile D'Arby's once fresh sepia cool pose of braid extensions and smooth moves parodied to infamy by Euro-pop phenoms Milli Vanilli.
While it's a fool's bet to guess whether D'Arby (his Mama calls him Terence and so do I...) will ever reclaim the retronuevo Soul Man's crown, the assembled crowd certainly treated his return to Yankeeland as that of the conquering hero. From the first flashes of "Vibrator", through the taut synth-funk of early jam "Dance Little Sister", the feline, spastic-dancing and now dreadlocked D'Arby had most of the audience in the palm of his hand. Although the notorious "Sexy Supermodel" reared itself, we were luckily spared "With Cheese" and its limp rap. The intermittent failures of the performance were almost all forgiven in the form of a high-wire version of Symphony Or Damn's underrated single "She Kissed Me", wherein our Sananda stopped wigging in the faery ether and really kicked out the hard rock grit. Unfortunately, his triumph was fueled primarily by the persistence of the cult of personality and the strengths of his voice, not by the music. While the long set coasted on material drawn from three of his first four albums (the generally derided sophomore slump Neither Fish Nor Flesh was ignored), the Euro callaloo of his band could not keep pace. Hailing from Italy and Portugal, the group of men and women, including a bass player with Cruella De Vil hair, were comely enough -- such that the effect was as if they'd stepped out of a Vogue Italia shoot ideal of what rock stars should look like. One of the two background girls seemed like a sista (she definitely had a drop or two of Africa) and tried to spin a few sub-melismas into the mix, but it was not enough to funk funk funk funk it up.
My colleague Amy Linden said it best: "Sananda Maitreya is Sanskrit for 'I'm afraid of black people'!" Unlike Arthur Lee, who has lucked out in hitching the youngsters in Baby Lemonade to his star, D'Arby came off akin to Chuck Berry, who since the mid-1960s at least has been notorious for hiring shitty pick up bands of white hippies and others for his never-ending nostalgia gigs rather than investing in real players with chops (of any race). It was obvious that D'Arby remains in Europa because he cannot abide with the realities of Black America and has a self-destructive tendency not to hire musicians that match the high caliber of his songwriting. His Sam Cooke-informed vocal excesses and falsetto can only go so far. Indeed, everything about his phrasing, grooves and stage movement harkened to the African presence yet he seemed unable to abandon youthful dreams of mutating into Mick Jagger. Odd that: a desire to emulate a Brit who's made a career of crudely imitating blacks. D'Arby showed interesting range in moving from his own beloved back catalog ("Delicate", "Wishing Well", "Sign Your Name") to standards like "Moon River", which he sang virtually a capella�He'll be your Huckleberry. Yet in closing with "Jumping Jack Flash", perhaps the crown jewel in the Jagger-Richards songbook, Sananda Maitreya made woefully plain that he will never return to America as the black rock savior of Black Bohemia's dreams.
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