ERYKAH BADU at the Kool Haus, March 5. Rating: NNNN
Sometimes it's easy to forget that Erykah Badu will do as Erykah Badu does. Last night's show at the Kool Haus - billed as a Baduizm retrospective and announced just two weeks ago - was also the final stop on an eight-city tour. But before Badu, whose fans are normally as impassioned and unwavering as Dylan-ites, could land in Toronto there was a surge of skepticism. Of course this is Toronto and if there's a will, there's a way to hate, but the doubt felt slightly warranted. Last time she was booked here, in August 2010, the show was cancelled within days. There's some fatigue over a spate of aggressively promoted and poorly attended "nostalgia circuit" shows. And there was the $70 - SEVENTY DOLLAR!!! - price tag to stand around the gaping, ambiance-bereft Kool Haus. At that price, and befitting her stature, Badu should've played Massey Hall like she did in 08.
Lost amid the social media griping was that chances were slim to none that anyone would leave unsatisfied. That is the power and talent of the Sphinx-y, beguiling Badu: one of America's best musicians, in the rockist sense of "best." And so, duh, there was a significant turn out and easy vibes: proof that Badu will continue to command.
She was supposed to play Baduizm, her 1997 Grammy Award-winning debut, front-to-back. Instead, she switched it up for 2000's Mama's Gun. It's a record that's more stacked and complex, jazzier and confession-heavy - and therefore, in some ways, less accessible - than the clear-eyed soul of single-heavy Baduizm. Dressed simply in a calf-length skirt, burgundy cardigan draped over a loose grey tee, hair piled into a cream tam, Badu moved through the record's first side, flirting with the crowd, smiling radiantly at the front rows and slipping into easy banter.
She skulked toward the set's centerpiece, Orange Moon (not Bag Lady, though that was good too) taking her time with each song by teasing out the closing phrases and easing into the clarion-like top of her range. It was as if the love or hurt or feelings present in those songs were still active; it's the kind of timeless and decorous conviction that's supplanted in young artists like Frank Ocean.
Over the crowd's constant din, helped along by the decently calibrated sound, Badu managed to convey something contemplative and genuine and moving before a brief dip into groovier cuts from Baduism (Other Side Of The Game) and her third album, Worldwide Underground (Danger, Love Of My Life). It was a two-hour set and she didn't touch anything from her most recent work, the New Amerykah series and collaborations with Flying Lotus and Bonobo. As with any musician who literally commands a following, it is a dream to get them in such a leisurely, unencumbered state. Do you, Badu.