There was the feeling of "What now?" when leaving Wingate Field last night, a two hour performance by Erykah Badu having drawn to a close, the feeling, increasingly more rare these days for me, that a really amazing piece of art is able to inspire in one. I had just watched this really powerful performance, so incredibly good, me with a smile of awe and happiness on my face throughout much of the show, and felt as if I had been imparted some knowledge, some light, and what to do with that was the question, how not only to hold on to this feeling for as long as possible, but what to do with the feeling.
She came out on stage around 8:30, her hair in a big 'fro again, commanding this giant stage somehow, the sheer force of her presence somehow enough to overcome playing such a giant outdoor venue. I wasn't sure that her idiosyncratic form of funk and soul would be able to work in such a large outdoor space, and I am sure for most people such an effort would have failed, their efforts not making it past the first few rows, eaten up by the mass of space and unenclosed sky, but she was totally incredible even from near the back of the field where we were.
She had a large band that was totally in sync with her, following her abrupt and frequent commands to hold or stop, while she scatted or riffed. I haven't really listened to her new album yet, but even the songs from that, songs I didn't recognize, I enjoyed so much, watching her perform. The show kept going on and on and on - oh, on and on and on and on, my cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone - and it didn't ever drag; the energy just built and built for two hours, her finally ending the show a few songs after she was told she needed to.
Toward the end of her set, she gave one of her scattered monologues that pepper her live album, somehow this loose monologue, not necessarily the most coherent, had the ring of truth and moved the entire field of people to her side, to the right side. She began talking about how she had named her new album after a documentary she had seen called 4th World War, and the effect that that documentary had had on her, how in one particular scene there were Zapatistas singing a protest song to the soldiers who were preventing them from occupying land rightfully theirs and how even though she didn't understand Spanish, she understood the meaning of the song, and how members of the army cried listening to the song. The monologue then moved on to our culture of fear and its corollary, our culture of consumption. She talked about Obama. She talked about change, about how we are capable of it. It was incredibly scattered, but so fucking moving, and we all fucking got it, all understood and nodded our heads at truth and cheered to hear it expressed.
From this beautiful monologue, she led into a really rousing version of "Soldier." I was ready to march in this army of hers, heard her call for a new world, for righteousness, and when she sang, "If you think about turning back, I got the shotgun on your back," I felt even more committed, felt more sure about things I should be doing, working for good, creating.
And she just kept on going, playing a couple more songs before seemingly closing with "Tyrone," the hit everyone wanted to hear and were beginning to call out for. But always doing things her way, she teased the audience for a bit, drawing out the song so much during the line "But you can't use my phone," scatting the word "my" for what seemed like a couple minutes, having her way with us, me even more in love with her after seeing her perform live.
And every time it seemed the show was over, another song would start, and following that, she played "Bag Lady," the song never sounding so good. She stretched this song into a long sweaty funk, the audience dancing, Badu going down into the crowd, having people sing along with her, the concert at this point achieving what so few concerts do, accomplishing that thing that we all hope for every time we go see any show, a completely moving experience, something like church, this collection of people having a shared experience, the performer tapping into something and all of us drawing from that well, drinking the punch. The song kept going. Around me, a slow funk version of The Electric Slide broke out and it kept growing in numbers, more and more people doing this slide dance. The joy I was experiencing during this show was so great and maybe during this moment at its greatest.
The song ended, the slide formation broke up, smiles still glowed on faces, and Badu went into yet another song, a gorgeous slow song that I did not recognize and with this song she closed her amazing set. After the song, there was another brief monologue, Badu telling us that one smile could create a million, that one kiss could create a million, a million, a million, a millie, a millie, a millie - imitating the Lil' Wayne song, which started blaring over the speakers, serving as her exit.
And the question of "What now?" remains. It is unanswered but not shapeless. There are vague contours to its answer that need to be more delineated.