Erykah Badu is an incredible performer.
With a gorgeous voice backed by a quality songbook -- as well as a consistently first-class backing band -- she’s the type of artist worth waiting for. And that’s exactly what the sold-out crowd at Humphreys Concerts By the Bay did on Thursday night. We waited.
The Grammy-winning soul singer was scheduled to come on at 8 p.m., but it wasn’t until 8:15 that her DJ finally took the stage.
It could have been worse; he did a fine job warming up the full house with recognizable jams by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, the Fugees, Mary J. Blige, Charlie Wilson, George Duke and Too $hort. At one point, even Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ ” made its way into the lively 45-minute set.
Shortly after 9, Badu’s 10-piece band (three singers, guitar, bass, keys, percussion, drums, flute, turntables) took the stage, but there was still a bit more waiting to be had. The excellent ensemble mugged for as long as they could (including flute, bass and guitar solos), but at 9:15 it was apparent that the capacity crowd was growing restless.
So it was a good thing that Badu came out moments later, and she was greeted with a standing ovation.
Wearing a rust-colored, wide-brimmed hat and matching outfit (initially covered by a striped poncho), the dynamic singer got her first laugh of the night when she stopped the band and admitted, “I don’t know what I’m singin’.” Within a moment, she was back on track and swaying to the first bars of the seven-minute "Orange Moon," from 2000’s Mama’s Gun.
“Peace and love,” she said. “How you all feel?”
The deafening response could not have been misconstrued and set the bar for the crowd’s relentless enthusiasm all night.
Finishing "Orange Moon" with one of her trademark, end-of-song power “poses,” she dropped the poncho and immediately launched into the provocative "Master Teacher," off of 2008’s New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War).
At this point, the gigantic video screen draped behind the band started up. With images ranging from geometric shapes to pictures of Badu, it was utilized effectively throughout the evening.
At 42, Badu is a seasoned professional, but it’s still amazing just how hard her impromptu scat runs and high notes still hit. It seems as if when she’s having fun -- and it certainly seemed like she was having some on Thursday -- she channels her 25-year-old self at will.
Badu’s stellar effort was not lost on the crowd. They routinely clapped and sang along, loudest when Badu indulged them with older favorites.
“Can I go back to Baduizm for a minute?” she asked.
The crowd roared in response and followed it with a sing-along so loud you couldn’t hear Badu at all during the start of slow-burner "Other Side of the Game," from that 1997 debut.
And Badu was happy to reward the enthusiasm: In the later part of the evening, the singer invited the raucous crowd to leave their seats and get closer, even bringing a young man up onstage while she serenaded him with the ballad "Time's A Wastin'."
My highlight of the night came when Badu tackled Outkast’s nine-minute opus, "Liberation," a song that she guested on in 1997.
“I’d like to dedicate this next song to one of my best friends in the world, Andre Benjamin,” she said about the father of her first child and half of the now-defunct Grammy-winning Georgia rap duo.
Badu’s version was excitingly paced, including a midsong switch to reggae grooves, finally closing as a dreamy, free-jazz swoon. Not bad for a politically charged poem on oppression.
But, really, the whole night was a love fest. With the perfect weather, the gorgeous bay setting, and an electric performance from an artist at the top of her game, it was easy to get swept up.
“I love coming here,” Badu said. “I feel so at home.”
And she should. Her fans in San Diego know that good things are worth the wait.