Reviews

Erykah Badu + The Roots

Matt Mazur

If any contemporary artist is pushing the boundaries of preconception, misconception, and trail-blazing, it is Badu. She defies age, race, and gender norms. Hell, she defies earthly norms.

Erykah Badu + The Roots

Erykah Badu + The Roots

City: Boston, MA
Venue: Orpheum Theater
Date: 2008-05-08

Perhaps the single most exhilarating listening experience I have had with an album this season has been with Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah. The record is at turns daring, spaced out, mournful, and full of heart. The production, much of which is done by Madlib, sounds positively dangerous. Not one to play the shrinking violet onstage, Badu’s live show projects a similar vibe. One of the premiere black female artists working in the music industry today, Badu is unafraid of weighing in on topics from single motherhood (“had two babies/ different dudes” she sings on “Me”) to solidarity with the working-class victims of Hurricane Katrina. Propagating revolutionary messages of social justice and much-needed change that ride a wave of Byzantine-structured sound, Badu, it seems, has hit her stride with this newest release. Here she deftly swathes herself in the most technologically adventurous production of her career and compliments it beautifully with lyrics that are confrontational, enigmatic, and artistic. Going into the May 8 show at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, which was opened by Badu’s compatriots the Roots (making it strange that they didn’t perform the classic “You Got Me” together), I wasn’t sure that the densely-layered video game sound effects that are so present in the album’s meticulous construction would be efficiently transferred to the live set. New Amerykah’s sound is complicated and filled with an array of impossibly chic, up-to-the-second electronic noises, whirrs, drum machines, samples and blips; a chorus of background voices that never waver in their devotion; and a squall of live instrumentation ranging from delicate flute lines to an onslaught of wickedly crisp guitar feedback. Badu is oft lumped into the category of “neo-soul”, which, if you have ever heard her music, is a little bit infuriating. If any contemporary artist is pushing the boundaries of preconception, misconception, and trail-blazing, it is Badu. She defies age, race, and gender norms in putting her singular experiences to song. Hell, she defies earthly norms. The five-foot-tall, other-worldly dynamo’s willingness to be artistically free and experiment without shame or fear is something to be treasured. How many shows have you seen where the featured act slows everything down, sends away the back-up singers, starts interpretive dancing, and sings a sexy love song to a red exercise ball while dressed in a black leotard, wig cap, and pseudo-mime make-up? Now how many ladies (or gentlemen, for that matter) can actually pull that off? But more on the voyage of the red exercise ball later. The Orpheum is the premiere venue for most of the good shows in Boston, and Badu and the Roots sold it out, proving that there is, after all, an audience in New England that demands quality alternative African American sounds. It is not unusual for great hip hop and R&B acts to skip this area of the country altogether, but as evidenced by the multi-racial, multi-generational crowd of this show, Boston is a niche market that should be given more consideration. It’s been a long time since I have seen such an amenable crowd, in fact: middle-aged couples out on the town for a special date, elementary-school-aged kids rocking out in the aisles, tattooed punks, the queer contingent, and hip-hop lovers were all perfectly in synch, singing along to both the Roots and to Badu in unison. The crowd can make or break any event, and in this case, there was a palpable air of respect that brought a feeling of safety, like we were all about to witness something sacred and be bonded forever by it. Plus, everyone was moving. Everyone was on their feet for the majority of the show. The Roots brought up a seven-piece ensemble to the stage that included two drummers, a sea of keyboards, a kick-ass bassist, and, for good measure, a tuba player who didn’t break a sweat despite his heavy load. Their (ruefully) brief set was filled with jam-outs and medleys, with tracks from their new record Rising Down, the aforementioned solo-Roots version of “You Got Me” (which made little sense without Badu), and their hit single “The Seed 2.0”, which most audience members sung along with -- a little weird considering the song’s subject matter (impregnating a woman). Still, with their joyous exuberance, the Roots successfully conveyed the message that live, big-band hip hop isn’t for the weak: it’s an art form, and they do it best. This ballsy musical unpredictability is surely why they agreed to support Badu’s Vortex Tour. Their talented, complicated jam-band anthems change dramatically (frequently) and take off into different stratospheres when you least expect it. As a band, the arrangements were incredibly tight, maybe even meticulous. The bass lines served up were piping hot and soul-quaking, while the guitars often verged on assaulting. The mighty ?uestlove even signed his drum sticks and cast them into the hungry crowd; one almost hit me in the head, but, hey, I guess that’s part of the fun. As much as they might have primed the pump, there was no real way to prepare for the audio-visual blitz that was Badu’s two-hour-plus wild snake of a live show. When Badu took to the stage, in a feathery mod black skull cap, stiletto boots, and a highly conceptual haute couture mini-dress, it was as though the audience was transported to another fictional time or planet that invoked Ursula Le Guin and George Clinton, with a dash of Radiohead thrown in for good measure. Backed by four female back-up singers, each with lungs as powerful as the chanteuse herself, dressed in outfits that can best be described as “interplanetary girl group siren nurses”, the show started off with some impressive bits of choreography. I’m not sure what I was expecting the concert to be like, but having just caught an excellent live HD set from Badu recently on TV, I expected something more pared down and laid-back. Instead, I was handed ferocity on a plate, complete with hot stage moves. The hottest I have seen in years, in fact. Playing the first four songs in a row from her newest record, Badu and Co. nailed every note, every nuance, and every gesture from the first second she fluttered onto the stage. The live show added a gorgeously full flavor to each of the record’s more sparse moments (the first track, “Amerykahn Promise” actually sounded more anthemic than it does on disc), and the subtle rearranging and wild instrumentation were perfectly complimentary to the sumptuous, angelic harmonic tones in the women’s voices (“Twinkle” in particular benefited the most from its electric makeover). It was an extremely powerful image: five beautiful, capable African American women onstage, of all ages and sizes, moving in time, virtually on fire. The alchemy onstage was once in a lifetime. What I was completely unprepared for was the forged-in-iron tenacity of Badu’s voice – this was some of the most powerful singing I have seen live, and that is not hyperbole. Badu’s lung power is astounding, and the clarity of her notes must be seen to be believed. In between fiddling with her laptop and her drum machine, she drank ceremonial teas from a mysterious thermos and concocted little potions for herself, presumably to keep her voice from crashing. The “analogue girl in a digital world” does not miss a beat. Each run, each chord change, each register she transcended -- it was all accomplished flawlessly. “The Healer” and “Soldier” were the highlights for me, if forced to choose. During the latter, she paused several times for effect on the line “got love for my folks/ baptized when the levee broke,” and prompted a call and response that induced cheers and wild support from the audience. It’s great to hear a singer of this caliber taking on such topical hot-button political issues, particularly ones that affect other African American women; and she offers a positive take on most of them as an antidote. On “Me” she pledges allegiance to Minister Farrakhan, but wants everyone to know that ultimately, she follows the beat of her inner drum. Badu isn’t all politics and revolution, though. “On and On” was the night’s biggest sing-a-long, and was light and fun. “Danger”, from Worldwide Underground and one of her best songs, made a surprise appearance, and the recorded complexities and sampled bits, which might seem impossible to pull off live, were all successfully managed, mainly due, again, to the tremendous back-up singers (who this time took on some slick robotic dance moves during a languid breakbeat on the bridge). With competing melodies and several perspectives happening often all at once on the song, it could have easily devolved into a hot mess, but the lovelorn, epic squall about a woman who takes up the family business of running coke after her husband is put in the slammer ended up being brilliant live, benefiting from the nasty guitar riffs that flanked the singers. During the show’s later mid-section, Badu appeared in a more light-hearted, pared-down manner, ushering in the luscious low-fi jazz-soul sounds of Mama’s Gun. “Green Eyes” found the diminutive singer dishing out some of the most conceptual performance art this side of Bjork as her back-up entourage threw a red exercise ball around and waved silk banners behind a seated, smiling Badu, who, as I previously mentioned, was dressed for Vaudeville. This section of the show evoked another legend, actually: Judy Garland. Specifically, it was reminiscent of her intimate New York concert toward the end of her life, where she came out dressed as a hobo, nakedly emotional, laid out for the audience to take. I got the sense that this section of bizarre dance and free expression was Badu offering herself in a similar way to this audience, who ate it up. It was goofy, improvisational, and light. “Just make love to me,” she sang to the ball, whilst shimmying and flirting with it. It was maybe the weirdest thing I have seen from an artist of this stature, but it was definitely amazing. It is the kind of experimentation that sets Badu apart from her army of imitators. She grounded the fantasy with a killer take on that record’s “Orange Moon”, a lushly-orchestrated ballad that could have been recorded in the ’40s by Billie Holliday. When it came time for the encores, Badu kept it short and sweet. Another Mama’s Gun fave, “Bag Lady”, began to pump from the sound system, and within minutes, the singer jumped off the stage and into the audience, where she shared the mic with whomever felt like singing a line or two. On the “let it go, let it go, let it go” chorus, she actually had the band go back and play the same bars over when she found a really great singer in the audience. She stopped to dance with a young boy who was raucously dancing in the center aisle; both were grinning ear to ear as she offered him the mic for a verse. She then made her way directly over to where I was grooving out with my fist raised in the air. Singing her ass off the entire time, she wrapped her hand around mine, held it high in the air, eyes afire, smiling, belting her song out while dancing with me. How often can you say that during the best concert you have seen in years, you closed out the show by holding hands and dancing with the performer? It was a transformative experience. I can’t wait to see what tricks Badu has up her sleeves for the next assault. With any luck, next time she heads east, she brings back her sleek moves, her amazing friends, and her impressive arsenal of gadgetry -- not to mention her sexy little man-whore of an exercise ball.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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