Erykah Badu goes all night at GHOE

by Ryan Snyder

| | @YESRyan

Adopting the hashtag #GHOE — social media-speak for Greatest Homecoming on Earth — in October to brand Greensboro’s largest annual tourist event was a figurative throwing of the gauntlet by the North Carolina A&T; a challenge to their area HBCU brethren and sistren that there really ain’t no party like an Aggie party. By Monday morning, that tag had appeared on Instagram alone nearly 100,000 times since its deployment and while the Aggies overwhelmed poor Virginia University of Lynchburg on the football field on Saturday, the battle for #GHOE had already been handily won the night before.

The unusually late start time — late for a War Memorial show anyway — for Erykah Badu’s one-off, sold-out gig Friday night was in place to accommodate the early evening A&T Homecoming festivities, but airline delays resulting from the LAX shooting earlier in the day pushed Ms. Badu’s set even further. No matter, because the concert deceptively billed as an “An Intimate Evening with Erykah Badu” was all of that and more. “Intimate” implies something subdued, almost sleepy; the kind of performance one might expect if your knowledge of the Queen of Neo-Soul only extended through her 1997 album Live.

What Badu brought to her late night show was as predictably expressive as her claims “analog girl in a digital world” would suggest, but also playful, polymathic and laden with surprises from the jump. The first of those came immediately after superfluous warm-up sets from a paralocal comedian and a short set of old-school hip-hop joints from one of the many DJs who claim membership in her Cannabinoids crew.

As her backup singers, percussionists and synth player took their places, a singular bubble bass groove emanated from the immediate left of her space age vocal station as the band jammed briefly on the “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long” instrumental. From the cowed response, the identity of that sound’s owner seemed to escape the mostly middle-aged crowd of Aggie alumni; Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is a bit of a hipster darling based on his sweeping acclaim his two solo albums have garnered his music geek circles. Anyone who’s seen a set of explosive, virtuosic funk fusion from the current Brainfeeder standard bearer would most imminently recognize him by the full feathered headdress he wears while slapping out exquisitely complex bass leads. The two feathers hanging from the end of his Burns Bison were, in this case, the dead make.

As much sense as his feature spot alongside Ms. Badu makes given his immense skillset, he’s always been unconcerned with stylistic boundaries. He and brother Ronald Bruner, Jr. (sons of longtime Motown stickman Ronald Bruner) served as the rhythmic unit for Suicidal Tendencies (Thundercat replaced Robert Trujillo, who was recruited by Metallica), before Thundercat joined up with Snoop Dogg and eventually with Badu.

His elasticity mirrors that of the 2013 version of her, who slinked onstage just after 11:30 p.m. and took her spot amidst a mic stand, an MPC beat machine, a Macbook Pro bearing a sticker reading “Treehugging Dirt Worshipper,” and an arsenal of maracas and casabas. For all the esoteric gear that left one wondering how exactly it would fit into a set that includes the jazzy Mama’s Gun, the sample-heavy Worldwide Underground, and deep-pocket New Amerykah albums, it was her look that drew the most immediate attention. The oversized black hat tilted cock-eyed over a head of floor-length braids (unfortunately not her own) gave her an appearance somewhere between a character from “Hattytown” and the Alchemist from “The Holy Mountain.” “Grambling State in the house,” she said to a buzz of cheers and “Ah-gee pri-eed!” The look encapsulated Badu in all her contradictions: exotic, earthy, regal, irreverent, but it also gave the audiences on either side of the room two different experiences for the opening stanza. On the right, she was veiled and mysterious.

Only Thundercat’s facial expressions gave visual insight into her disposition for the diaphanous ballad “20 Feet Tall.” On the left, she was beaming and unguarded, starkly lit with blues and yellows, but from either perspective, she was simply fun to watch. She’s either twirling beautiful shapes in the air while singing, or tossing her lavish braids around while high stepping and pirouetting from one end of the stage to the other.

This wasn’t an evening for exacting recreations of celebrated songs. There was no set list, and thus, it was more like whatever fit the moment and Badu had the chops to pull it off. While her albums almost always present a tapered view of her vocal range, she sang Baduizm’s “Otherside of the Game” with potent, sustained control despite adlibbing a sizable chunk of its lyrics. That unpredictability was the cornerstone in Badu’s claim to neo-soul supremacy. Her unaccompanied work on the drum machine started with Bambaataa-esque beat skittering and evolved from vocal beatboxing into a full-blown cover of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Freedom.”

The palette-expanding gimmickry aside, Badu’s voice can still fill a room, and when she pulls back, her audience is always willing to do it for her. She soaked “Stay” in reverb that completely faded out unbeknownst to the group of women in orchestra singing their hearts out. Her sociopolitical invective played especially well with the A&T alumni, as she offered an especially pointed line from “Soldier” (“To the girls on prescriptions pills, I know how ya feel”) as the place setter for the room to pick up the next line. The reward was an all-out jam on “On and On” where Thundercat and Cleon Edwards emerged from deep in the pocket to score an Erykah Badu funk ballet.

As predictable as any part of her set could have been Badu’s closing offering of course brought out “Tyrone,” arguably her biggest hit that never was thanks to a servicing misstep. Some of her most seething, pained lyrics have taken on collateral meaning thanks to the period My Morning Jacket spent covering it (“…you gotta bring JIM JAMES, Paul and Tyrone”), but she had yet another surprise tucked away. At just past 1 a.m., she announced to the weary crowd that she was headed to an all-night DJ gig at the Dynacon Center under her alias DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown, dropping dubbed out mixes of Lil Wayne, thumped-up mixes of SWV and her own remixed hits, not just sealing #GHOE for the Aggies (the following night’s TI, J. Cole, Kelly Rowland and Juicy J show was just icing), but one of the best nights of music in Greensboro this year.