Erykah Badu – Live in Toronto

On May 6 Toronto’s historic Massey Hall was graced by one of the most incredibly talented (and partially crazy) performers I’ve ever had the fortune of seeing. You can see the hall below. Massey Hall has been around for a long, long time and has managed to pack in a lot of pretty amazing performers over the years. Even though it’s got a pretty small capacity by some standards (it can hold a little under 3,000 people), it’s still a pretty respectable place to perform.

Erykah Badu rocked the place. She had the entire crowd on the edge of their seats. Periodic shouts of “I Love You Erykah!” rang out from all over the place. It was actually pretty nice to see everyone get so into the show. On the whole, this crowd seemed fairly young. Unlike the Mos Def show a while back, you definitely didn’t see that many older people coming to check things out.

Things started out well enough. Zaki Ibrahim opened for Badu and did a pretty stellar job. This young Canadian songstress has a really soulful voice and a powerful stage presence. It was a great match for Badu. They have similar styles but also strikingly different topics. I found Ibrahim to be a little more political, but a phenomenal performer.

Check out Daylight, by Zaki Ibrahim. [audio:]

Badu took to the stage about 30-40 minutes late. Which, by her standards, is actually pretty close to being on time. While waiting for her, I noticed several things. A small table was carefully laid out for her. On the table was a bunch of shakers and maracas, a thermos, and oddly enough, a Macbook with iTunes clearly running on it. We made jokes about how she would just be going up there to hit “play” and would call it a performance piece. Obviously she didn’t quite do that, but Badu made full use of the Macbook, playing random snippets of old hip hop and different songs, and using some sort of digital crank to speed up some samples and make new sound effects.

She also (as you can see in the picture below) used a digital turntable to achieve similar effects. Only utilized on a few tracks, it was still kind of nice to see a singer trying to get more involved with her art.

After that it just got weirder. There was a point where Badu spent at least 20 minutes performing while playing with giant yoga balls. I’m not even sure how to explain it.

She toyed with them, bounced them around. She even hit one of her backup singers with it. She started using one as a metaphor for one of her songs. The bright red ball played the part of the jilted lover, the unrequited love interest, all kinds of things.

It was pretty interesting to watch, and definitely didn’t lack surprises. Repeatedly losing the ball and letting it roll off stage made things even more interesting, because she got to make the day of several fans by letting them give her back her giant orange-red yoga ball.

Check out Honey, by Erykah Badu. [audio:]

The backup band was phenomenal. As you can see in the picture on the right, she had a pretty big band accompanying her. Two sets of percussionists, a bass player, flute player, keyboardist, and a set of 4 incredibly talented backup singers. They kept the vibe alive repeatedly, especially when Badu took her mid-set break (she had to change into yoga gear before coming back to play with her yoga balls)

Badu sure knew how to play the crowd too. She spent most of the show playing tracks off her new album New Amerykah 4th World War. It’s not a bad album by any stretch, but definitely not my favourite of hers. I think that there was a stronger emphasis on the instrumental portions of this album too. You see a lot of tracks with a heavy instrument component and her crooning in little snippets from time to time. It still sounds great, but not exactly what you’ve come to expect.

At one point near the end, Erykah got off stage and decided to mingle with her adoring fans. She strolled up and down the aisles of Massey Hall. She stopped at the front row. This girl had been on her feet dancing despite the fact that no one else had been. So Badu stopped and sat on her lap while singing. I think this girl’s head almost exploded.

She kept going up the aisle until she found her next target. She got up on the back of a chair and threw her leg over the shoulder of this guy. She did her best to encourage him to sing, and he seemed to really love it.

She had a little crowd of followers gather as she posed for some pictures before finally getting on stage again.

All in all a fantastic performance. Now Badu is back in the states and continuing her tour. She’s now joined forces with the Roots to tour together. That would be a spectacular show.