Gent Jazz Festival, Days 5-8: Gent, Belgium, July 11-14, 2012
Ashling Cole's lead vocals were a crucial part of the thrusting assault, her powerful, range-striding voice aided by a naturally outgoing communication with the crowd. Graham danced across his effects pedals, suddenly slamming on a distortion sound for a brief blow-out, then slapping right back into an obsidian tar-stretch thickness. At one point, he descended into the audience, and could be seen gliding through the masses with supreme smoothness and balance. It turned out that he was being trundled along on an oiled-wheel trolley, pouring out an excessive fuzz bass solo as he perambulated in style. At the end, the Sly Stone greatest hits climax coincided with a massive stage invasion by the invited throng, Graham clearly enjoying an exchange program with audience/performer roles. Along with Jamaican Legends, it was the second week's triumphant performance.
This was a most unfortunate turn of events for D'Angelo, who was the ostensible headliner. It was no help that this singer, guitarist and keyboard player's slinky songs feature funk as a significant part of their make-up. D'Angelo has recently emerged from a self-imposed 'early retirement,' so there was the sense that he had something to prove, to re-establish his prominence. If he hadn't been immediately preceded by Graham Central Station, D'Angelo's set would have fared much better. As it happened, some slow building was required to excite the now admittedly further enlarged crowd. The gradual stoking was probably a deliberate tactic, the stage loaded with multiple guitarists, all steaming along to big grooves, dedicated to the cumulative strut.
It was very noticeable that D'Angelo had none of the casual naturalness and humor of, let's say, Prince, inflated as he is by a serious attention to being the unsmiling, non-deflatable seducer of all the ladies in the house. Compared to Graham's natural confidence this seemed somehow laughable, the funk pumped full of artificial testosterone substitutes. Finally, the songs sufficed, as the slick assemblage layered up dense plates of alternating soul, rock, funk and hip hop elements. It took some time, but the set ended up being something of a sprawling leviathan anyway. On one level, the ongoing pulse-motion of the band had to be admired, but their wide-ranging musical forms were all being filtered through a mainstream R&B sensibility.