Punctuality is not Erykah Badu's strong suit. Considering that the neo-soul queen kept her fans waiting nearly four years for Mama's Gun, her studio follow-up to her 1997 monster debut disc, Baduizm, keeping the audience and band waiting a few minutes longer for the kickoff of her highly anticipated tour Saturday night at Cleveland's Allen Theatre didn't truly come as a surprise.
The soon-to-be-29-year-old Dallas, Texas, native — whose amalgam of urban sounds, old-school styles, and Oprah positivism single-handedly opened the door for contemporary soul sisters Macy Gray, Angie Stone, and Jill Scott — took her time before appearing at the recently refurbished performance hall that appropriately dates back to the jazz age of Badu's idols Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. The show began awkwardly, as her backing group, dressed in dark, nondescript coveralls, walked onstage ready to play among cheers from the audience, only to stand waiting in uncomfortable silence for nearly 10 minutes.
The saucy and stunning ingénue finally strolled out onstage in true diva fashion, wearing her trademark headdress, along with a fur coat and a lit stick of incense in her mouth. Her acting abilities — Badu played a critically acclaimed supporting role in the 1999 movie The Cider House Rules — were evident. Musically, Badu started slowly with a few quick scat lines preceding the night's opening track, "On & On." As it would all night, her polished band, remaining firmly out of the spotlight, lavishly decorated her Afrocentric musical stylings. Badu made her presence known with her strong, mesmerizing jazz voice, which swept the moment.
Mama's Gun, an album that looks more toward the future than reliving the past, provided an overwhelming majority of the night's material. Thankfully, Badu's past knack of effortlessly reworking and digressing in jazz structures from her mature studio versions remains intact. She took liberties with each song, and for the most part they were all worth the effort.
The hard-edged, slight hip-hop-rock "Penitentiary Philosophy," which transformed into a modern funk groove with a brazen Badu, was followed by the emotionally vulnerable "Didn't Cha Know."
A fine example of Badu's ability to set the mood and explore its textures came from a trilogy of Mama's Gun songs: "My Life," "… & On," and "Cleva." Until this point, Badu's onstage presence appeared a bit controlled. That began to change as the bass-heavy opening track segued seamlessly into its jazz counterpart, which showed off Badu's lite MC skills. Badu and her band were melodiously in tune in both demeanor and style.
Then, as if she'd been sandbagging her true just-another-sister image with this clichéd diva personality, Badu slowly and surprisingly plopped her headdress off, sending a shock through the crowd, which roared in response, just as the band entered the sincere "Cleva." A beautifully bald-headed Badu sang, "This is how I look without makeup … and you're the last to know." Simply put, this was the true beginning of a new chapter in Badu's career. Her talk of individualism (her music was decidedly hers, not her influences) and freedom from pigeonholing (the headdress) had arrived. From this point on, Badu was much more relaxed and animated onstage, conversing with audience members and outwardly enjoying the evening's cool vibe.
The opening of Badu's sophomore tour lived up to expectations, as she possessed the one characteristic often missing from her auspicious debut tour: confidence. Furthermore, the idea of a two-act show proved Badu the singer and Badu the entertainer aren't above having fun with her celebrity by both playing roles (diva) and destroying them. It's apparent Mama has her gun — she's loaded it with talent and her sight is set nationwide.