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06.16.10 | Fillmore Auditorium
Before Erykah Badu's set, a DJ was spinning and doing live mixes of pop hits of yesteryear, stopping or slowing down the music every now and then to let the crowd enthusiastically fill in the blanks. During "Poison" by Bell Biv Devoe, the DJ dropped out, and everyone sang along like some kind of group musical Mad Lib. Same with "Kiss" by Prince, "Sweet Dreams" by Eurhythmics and "Rock Me" by Michael Jackson.
A projection of the video for "Jump Up in the Air and Stay There" served as the opening of Erykah Badu's performance, and as it drew to a close, a sultry, echoing piano eased us into the set. Badu took stage in something like a bowler hat and a wrap adorned with geometric patterns. Opening with "20 Feet Tall," Badu and her backing band made the kind of music that sounds like you're in a jazz lounge out of place and time.
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During "Out My Mind, Just in Time," Badu proved she is one of the most versatile and talented vocalists of the modern era. Her intertwined choruses with her backup singers on that song and others isn't her own invention, but the way she weaves that in with a narrative, freely switching up a time signature with subtlety and fluidity over the course of several measures was beyond impressive.
By the time Badu and company got to "The Healer," you couldn't help but be struck by Badu's supreme grace, poise and emotive power. She is not one to knock you over the head with sheer sonic force, but her ability to employ thoughtful phrases in endlessly creative ways can take you by surprise -- like a Gil Scott-Heron gig in which he uses soothing yet moving music coupled with words that ultimately reveal the inherent wisdom of the singer.
Also impressive, toward the end of the set, Badu offered up a medley of older hip-hop songs including "Friends" by Whodini and "Gangsta Gangsta" by N.W.A. in the middle of "Love of My Life." At one point, she performed "Window Seat" and displayed the video behind but it cut out just as the scene that got too many people up in arms of late was about to roll. But like the closing words of that video, this entire show proved that while Badu may use a popular form of music to express things about everyday life in a finely crafted fashion, she delves far deeper, and with more poetic wisdom, than the bulk of her peers.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: Erykah Badu has long been an icon of cool. Random Detail: Surprisingly, of late, it wasn't a rainy night. By the Way: Badu attracts an admirably diverse audience.