Erykah Badu was golden at the Tower Theater on Tuesday.
Quite literally. Throughout the leisurely paced, two-hour stop on her "Out My Mind, Just In Time" tour, the soul-singing adventurer kept her understated backup ensemble - six musicians, one DJ, four singers - tinted blue behind her.
Badu herself stood center stage, a commanding presence bathed in yellow light. Opening with the slyly assertive "20 Feet Tall," ("If I get off my knees, I might recall/I'm 20 feet tall") from her new album New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, she made her entrance in a stovepipe top hat that she quickly tossed aside to reveal a blond weave. (No oversize Afro wig this time out.) She wore banana-size gold earrings, and a yellow T-shirt with a matching medallion that bore the word "MARS."
One could reasonably have guessed that it referred to the planet where the unpredictable and always intriguing Badu might be suspected of residing - or, at least, visiting for musical and sartorial inspiration.
But, no: That's the first name of the 39-year-old Texan's year-old daughter. Badu has taken to her role as a sort of interstellar earth mother to the neo-soul community since she emerged in 1997 with Baduizm, a jazz-R&B hybrid as distinctive as her towering head wraps.
Unlike its often militant 2008 predecessor, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Badu's new album is an exercise in restraint. Keyboard- and bass-heavy arrangements provide an easeful cushion for songs that celebrate idiosyncratic individuality ("Out My Mind, Just In Time") and are likely to turn a touch wicked ("Fall in Love - your funeral") lest you get too comfortable.
At the Tower, Badu beat out rhythms on an electronic drum pad on her left and triggered video on a table to her right, while imperiously directing her band with James Brown-worthy authority as she saw fit. Until she let loose the aggression of "Danger" and "Soldier" toward the end of the set, Badu chose to luxuriate in mid-tempo grooves that might have grown enervating were she not such a charismatic presence. She is a great, rhythmically adept singer who has fully internalized the Billie Holiday influence that plays out as mere affectation in so many young vocalists.
Sorry, Badu lovers (or haters), she neither reenacted nor played in its entirety the controversial video for "Window Seat," in which she strips naked before acting as if she was shot dead at the site of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. She did trigger a snippet of the clip, but cut it short before its completion. The song itself, however, got a fully fleshed-out, satisfyingly stirring performance, as part of an encore featuring drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and keyboard player James Poyser of the Roots that took place after much of the crowd had departed, thinking Badu was done for the evening.
The four-hour evening featured two topflight openers. Cyborg-obsessed future soul diva Janelle Monae started it off with a blazingly energetic set that drew largely from her new The ArchAndroid, but also caught its breath with a becalmed version of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile."
Monae, whom Badu called "my wonder twin," is a dazzling talent, but her abbreviated set was far too busy for its own good, with quick-cutting video clips (Look, it's James Brown! Sun Ra! A tightrope walker! Darth Vader!) and a few too many musical ideas crammed into the blink of an eye.
Philadelphia soul singer Bilal Oliver - who's billed as Bilal - followed, and displayed the same gritty grace and agile falsetto that marked him as a neo-soul star in the making when his album, 1st Born Second, came out in 2001. He pulled the seductive "Soul Sista" from that album, as well as providing a tantalizing taste of a comeback album that is scheduled to be released in September.