Erykah Badu - Hammersmith Apollo, London 27/06/12
Lianne La Havas takes the stage in an already packed Hammersmith Apollo resplendent in her trademark puffed white blouse, every inch a star in the making, La Havas is clearly thrilled to be opening for one of her idols… In the flesh she's certainly more gutsy than her public image might suggest. Her set ranges from the stripped down solo performance of one of her signature tunes 'Age' to full on gospel blow out 'Is Your Love Big Enough', the title track from her forthcoming debut album. Musically La Havas toes a pretty straightforward line in post blues/jazz/gospel guitar led pop. Lyrically and in her manner she calls to mind fellow Londoners (cor blimey, guv etc etc) Jamie T and The Streets, and the influence of chart record smashing pop soul chanteuse Adele hangs heavy, particularly in the slightly cringe-y over direct laments to ex boyfriends etc… A touch kitchen sink, for my personal taste, but La Havas certainly has the talent (particularly in her incredible, heart stopping vocal) to achieve a similar level of pop success as many of her contemporaries, and if she does it will be much deserved.
Erykah Badu, on the other hand, never once slips into the kitchen sink. In her music, her lyrics and most importantly in her attitude, she's as spaced out as her cosmic visuals and tripped out star curtain that form her backdrop for the evening. Opening with a song called '20 Feet Tall' is a bold statement and sets the tone for a performance by one of the greatest musical artists of the last 20 years. An artist of startling musical vision and a knack for constant reinvention that, if she continues to grow and change in such a fascinating manner, could come to rival Björk and Bowie.
Badu manages to condense the essence of what it means to be a black soul singer in the 21st Century into her 70 minute set. Tracks from her set are drawn from across her 5 album career and perfectly showcase her endless exploration of black (and non black) musical culture. From a fantastic, radical psyched out re-working of classic hit 'Apple Tree' to the fast flowing cover of Common's 'I've Been Thinking' and awesome jam on '81 classic soul song 'Don't Stop The Music', Badu knows how to throw a cosmic soul party. Her band are a joy to behold, led by keyboard player and musical director RC Williams, and backed up by superstar bass player du jour Thundercat and a host of stella musicians, mostly from her native Dallas, Texas. They are dextrous, precise and full of inventiveness.
For a performance by a chart topping, globe straddling mega star it's refreshingly full of extended jams, bizarre, Kaoss Pad and synth drum led interludes and surprisingly humble banter from Badu, particularly when she introduces the band towards the end of the show. The extended electro funk jam version of 'On + On' recalls Parliament/Funkadelic and there's even a touch of Sun Ra present in the use of tripped out flute and pan pipes. For someone who rose to be queen of neo soul in the 90s, Badu has spread her wings, go watch her fly next time she's in your orbit.