Notes On An R&B Concert

We arrived somewhat late into D’Angelo’s set at the Forest Hills Tennis club on a warm early evening in June, but we could hear the bass frequencies from several blocks away. Emerging from the stairwell into section six of what used to be a tennis court felt like entering a party with everyone facing a giant boombox; the music was pleasantly loud—loud enough that you could feel the drum hits vibrating your body. Our seats were in the very last row, with a view downwards. It was hard to see the performers as anything more than stick figures hundreds of yards away and our distance from the stage created a disconnect between seeing and hearing: the band’s gestures were always a half second ahead of their sounds, making their playing look like an out of sync karaoke performance.

But everything about this show was live and D’Angelo’s vocal performance was excellent. His voice does all the things a great R&B voice should, and he has a masterly sense of pacing, building a song without you realizing what’s happening. For a while it just sounds like repetition but then suddenly—kapoww!!—there’s a tutti stop and start, a hit on the downbeat a few times, a reset, and you realize how complete is his control of your sense of time unfolding. No doubt the band rehearsed these too numerous to count stops and starts and shifts of texture, but still they sounded spontaneous—like an endless stream of micro-variation. In D’Angelo’s hands, a four-minute song easily becomes double that which is remarkable because you wouldn’t think that a few chords and 4/4 backbeat could sustain this kind of development, but they can. It’s all about the variations.

Looking around me during the performance, I was struck by how useful D’Angelo’s music was to so many different people, how everyone was adopting it for their own ends, maybe even how people were remembering when they first heard it. Over there, couples swaying to the music together. Over here, three women multitasking—taking selfies together while singing along. In front of the stage I saw what looked like audience members having emotional meltdowns from being within ten feet of the famed singer. No matter where they were sitting or standing, everyone here was a fan and knew the big hits like “Brown Sugar” (even me), turning some songs into massive sing-along choral pieces.

I was particularly struck by the funky virtuosity of D’Angelo’s drummer, Chris Dave. On one song he did something with his hi hat playing—playing off-beat hits that appeared to move further and further off the downbeats by degrees of a sixteenth note which had the effect of making his snare hits on 2 and 4 sound increasingly unlikely to happen at the right time, yet somehow he kept it together. It was a kind of aural illusion as Dave played with the audience’s sense of the downbeat’s inevitability; the effect deepened the groove and made it all that more funky by inserting chaos into the rhythmic flow. You never knew how would get back to beat one, but he always did.

As Dave played what sounded to me like patterns that traveled further and further out from the constraints of the 4/4 R&B beat, I realized that after D’Angelo’s voice, funky grooves were the most important aspect of this concert. It was the grooves that made D’Angelo’s songs pop and so on our way home after the show I thought about all the good things good grooves do:

groove is what the musicians make together;
groove is what sets the parameters for the musicians to go off of and return to;
groove is what the audience responds to and interacts with—
what they sway and dance to;
groove gives the audience a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the music
(not once did the groove drag or rush; it was in complete control of itself, taking us along for its surprising ride)
groove is what suggests other things outside of music;
groove is what makes this music what it is.

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