Crowd gets it all from Badu


February 25, 2001




Badu, Badu, Badu, Badu.

At strategic points during Erykah Badu's sold-out show at the Auditorium Theatre on Friday, the first of a two-night stand, a trio of backing singers chanted the name of the Dallas, Texas, diva in a number of styles.

At alternate times, it was a prayer, a curse, an exclamation and an ecstatic sigh--just like the singer's two-hour performance itself.

Touring in support of a strong second album, "Mama's Gun," the self-professed "analog girl in a digital world" led a big, bad 10-piece R&B band through a sweaty set that galvanized fans and showed the full scope of her considerable talents.

The show ranged from the intimate Billie Holiday-like torch song of "Orange Moon" to the angry, self-righteous rant of "Penitentiary Blues," closing with a good-humored old-school soul vamp that would have done James Brown and the Famous Flames proud.

Throughout, Badu made it clear that she intends to hold on to her crown as the queen of a movement dubbed neo-soul or "natural R&B," deftly fending off the challenges from a wave of younger female followers that includes Macy Gray, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill.

Prone to New Age pronouncements and affectations in her interviews, Badu appeared on stage wearing a long white coat and her trademark African headdress, gripping a stick of incense between her teeth and carrying a thermos of tea (herbal, no doubt) to be sipped in between songs. But the former Erica Wright wasn't about to float off into the ether.

The coat came off first, followed a few songs later by the platform boots, and finally the headdress, unveiling the beautiful, bald Badu who was just seen for the first time with Tony Bennett on Wednesday's Grammy telecast.

Encouraging her fans to feel free and be themselves at all times, Badu could be as earthy and ribald as a gangsta rapper at one moment and as pious as the leader of a church choir the next. As she sings, "It's a fine line between love and hate," and she gave vent to both emotions as well as many others during her set.

At all times, she was startlingly, refreshingly real, and the crowd responded to that, shouting encouragement and showering her with affection.

A hallmark of the natural R&B movement is that its artists are quick to support their peers, and a highlight of Badu's performance was a surprise duet with the Chicago-bred rapper Common on his song "Ghetto Heaven." The hometown fans went wild when Common appeared dressed in white from head to foot just like Badu.

Opening the show were the Philadelphia R&B singers Musiq, whose performance came off as a bit too mannered and ready for Lite-FM, and rapper Talib Kweli, who delivered a generic but mercifully short set.