On feeling alone in a sea of togetherness.
Photo via Wiki Commons
When D’Angelo released Black Messiah ten days before Christmas last year, I was discussing the future with my girlfriend. We had decided to pack up and move to Berlin for a while, at least long enough to catch our breath after spending the better part of a decade in New York. Everything was cool for the first few months, and then she got a call from an old boss offering her a big role in his new company. It was the kind of offer you don’t turn down, so she packed up and headed back stateside three months after she got here. She was going home and I was staying somewhere else. And that’s how I ended up at a D’Angelo concert in Germany alone on Valentine’s Day.
I looked the particularly sore thumb at the Columbiahalle on Saturday, especially when I started asking couples about their respective Valentine’s Days. Britta and Erik of Berlin weren’t really sure what I was talking about at first. “Ah so, we do not have this very much in Germany,” Erik said, “but I think it’s becoming a little more popular with more Americans in Berlin—like Halloween.” The punchline in that parallel rise was lost on Erik, but I think it might be an American college thing.
I found an Australian couple, Emma and Jason, and an American one, Elizabeth and Mark, hovering around the bar. They all seemed a little more in the spirit of the holiday. Emma, a student from Melbourne, said “it’s sort of a special date night for us. Things just stack on top of each other: It’s a Saturday, cool; it’s a D’Angelo concert, awesome; it’s Valentine’s Day, nice.” Mark, a musician from Brooklyn, said as much to me a few minutes before D’Angelo started his set. “It’s nice that it’s Valentine’s Day but that’s more a coincidence than anything,” he said. Mark may be right about it being romantic happenstance but there’s still an atmosphere here.
Around 8:45 Khalid Muhammad’s voice rammed through Columbiahalle and the lights dimmed and the man himself comes to the mic. The clip from Dr. Muhammad’s debate with noted tinfoil hat enthusiast Anthony Hilder is Black Messiah’s second salvo. “Ain’t That Easy” sucked in listeners easily, letting you know that D’Angelo wasn’t going to disappoint with his first album in 14 years. The fiery oratory about Jesus the black revolutionary heralding “1000 Deaths” gives the album its political spine, and cements the album’s role as being the sonic response to the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. How that clip plays with a crowd particularly aware of the perils of racial rhetoric is a loaded question, but Dr. Muhammad’s concussive logic playing over a powerful P.A. system will give you pause in any language.
The man came out with the stage as the unmistakable opening riffs to “Prayer” came over the venue and it was clear from the beginning this wasn’t going to be some set run through. D’Angelo looked genuinely happy to be onstage after more than a decade of false starts and pitfalls. This wasn’t the heady collection of covers and rarities that he tested at AfroPunk or the two and a half hour marathon at last week’s Apollo opener. It was an exercise in balance that he couldn’t have carried any better. The extended cuts of “One Mo’ Gin” and “Chicken Grease” were expansive without devouring the whole show; “Brown Sugar” was so tight it could have been a studio take. “Untitled” closed the show like a singalong benediction. There’s a gravity to D’Angelo’s closer, but that has nothing to do with geography or circumstance. It’s a song that has a natural weight for a lot of reasons but hearing a room filled with voices that are earnest in their appreciation and emotion lets it fill every empty space it can. It’s not so much a song as it is a holy spirit.
D’Angelo didn’t mention Valentine’s Day once which seemed a tasteful omission. Something about the holiday would have cheapened the show. This wasn’t Nas hosting New Year’s at Radio City or Flogging Molly playing every St. Patrick’s Day since the first Clinton administration. D’Angelo was here to perform. The calendar just happened to land on "two" and "14."
The mostly German crowd was as enthusiastic as I’ve seen, though the major rhythm deficit in this country means most of the people here dance like how I imagine Milhouse dances. Flailing elbows aside, I’ve never seen a room full of Germans so in tune with a sound that wasn’t coming from a laptop and a mixer. This wasn’t the detached, idle swaying I see on the techno-backed dance floors all over the city. Soul and funk aren’t endemic to Germany, but the crowd did their best to vibe with the man onstage who so obviously reveled in performing again. This was unplugging and cutting loose like I’ve never seen in my time here.
For the Americans in the crowd—and there were a lot of them—this was the culmination of a dream. D’Angelo’s masterpiece Voodoo was something of an extended release medication for a lot of people my age. It was always there, an album that adequately satisfied the question “What do you guys want to listen to next?” for close to my entire bout with young adulthood. I wasn’t expecting to see this many people singing along to D’Angelo’s new found mumble soul, but they had read the liner notes and lyrics pages and Genius annotations like it was a Purple Rain-era Prince show. It wasn’t quite the ceremonial atmosphere that I expect D’Angelo will see when he gets back stateside, but the enthusiasm from people on either side of the Atlantic made me feel at home on a night where I couldn’t feel further away from the things that make me happy. There was a group soul in Columbiahalle that had much less to do with Valentine’s Day than the man standing on stage.
The show let out and as I walked past the couples splitting cigarettes my girlfriend texted me asking about the show. As we talked the calendar slowly turned over to the 15th and I headed back to my apartment in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin. I turned up “The Line” as I hopped on the S42 and for a second thought I might finally be heading home.
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