Erykah Badu/Bilal: New York Radio City Music Hall

Fresh from the success of her 'Mama's Gun' album, Erykah Badu hits the stage, with star-in-the-making Bilal...

The man on stage right now is going to be a star. A big star. Just watch him for five minutes and it’s perfectly clear. Dressed in a shaggy vest, brown

leather pants with a huge-ass silver belt buckle and a cap over his dreads, Bilal seems to have spent a good deal of time at the Brad Pitt school of fashion and movement.

Which only combines with the way he’s mixing classic soul, R&B and funk into an amazingly modern musical melange, while nearly putting the all-powerful Prince himself to shame with his wailing falsetto, to paint a picture of a sex god in the making.

“When we ain’t got no motherfuckin’ heat in the house,” he’s moaning, “I got to get on you.” It’s a live version of Bilal’s sole single to date, ‘Soul Sista’, and for an opening act, he’s certainly getting folks excited. “I’ll be in you so long, I can feel your soul, sister,” he squeals. It’s a miracle no undergarments have been thrown on stage, but perhaps it has something to do with the posh venue.

When Oasis played at Radio City Music Hall last year, it seemed a bit, well, strange. Here was this big rock band, oozing danger and confrontation, playing in a venue full of plush seats, fancy carpets and ushers with bowties, handing out programs as they showed people to their seats.

Because what Radio City Music Hall really feels like is a Broadway theatre, despite its name. And Erykah Badu’s performance (following the second act, her good friend Common) is definitely theatrical, to say the least. Even before she takes to the stage, her backup singers and band are setting the scene, building the vibe in front of a backdrop designed to look like an old Southern house. “It’s Badu’s show,” the three singers are harmonizing. “We’re going to take you to another world.”

By the time Erykah makes her appearance, we’re already halfway there. At first, as she strolls casually towards the mic, it looks almost as if she’s just come from the shower, in a white bathrobe, with her towel wrapped around her hair. Despite her highly publicized newly shaved head, the head-wrap is once again in place, matched with a long white coat, a furry skirt and big, pale platform boots.

The set officially opens with ‘Other Side of The Game’, off Erykah’s debut album, ‘Baduizm’, before moving into the territory of her newer material, from her current release, ‘Mama’s Gun’. They play ‘Time’s A Wastin’ and Erykah pulls off a nifty light and sound trick that makes it look like she’s firing a laser at everyone on stage (and there are a lot of people up there).

Then the new album’s boldest moment, ‘Penitentiary Philosophy’, gets the spotlight, actually sped up from it’s already upbeat rock and roll pace. As Erykah wails out the final notes, the lingering realization is that she has somehow made an intense song even more intense, and she’s just getting started. When she makes it to ‘… & On’, the new album’s revisitation of her first hit single, ‘On & On’, Badu transforms her jazzy flow into a hip hop call-to-arms, shouting out the lyric, “Wake the fuck up, because it’s been too long!”

If anyone was actually sleeping here, however, they obviously have a medical condition. The song segues into ‘Cleva’, and as Badu sings the opening line, “This is how I look without my makeup,” the wrap is slipped back and then off. Of course, ‘Tyrone’, the song that helped make Badu’s live album a multi-million seller, gets a huge reaction from the fans. Performing an extended version of the song, Erykah brings in some not-so-spontaneous dialogue with the audience, followed by a concert photographer’s fantasy – snapping from one pose to the next, she freezes in a series of positions as the band hits beats behind her, for at least five minutes straight.

It all ends with ‘Bag Lady’, which finally brings many of the seated audience members to their feet, but they can’t be blamed for sitting down until then. This wasn’t just a concert, it was a show. It’s the way things happen in that other world – a very nice place to visit, and you just might want to live there.

Doug Levy