Erykah Badu stood, clad in what seemed like a Day-Glo bodysuit adorned with a tangle of various accoutrements, with her back to the audience. Above her, multicolored lights pulsed, and a projection screen displayed a riot of eye-popping images, cycling and spinning and melting into one another. Before her, seven backing musicians situated behind microphones, keyboards, drums, bass and a laptop, and beyond those bodies sat the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
The music being made, rich with tension between earthiness and sophistication, swelled and shifted and rumbled, blossomed and soared inside the gorgeous Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The song at hand was “Twinkle,” from Badu’s masterful 2008 LP New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) — its politically charged lines “They don’t know their language/They don’t know their God/They take what they’re given/Even when it feels odd” landing like a hand grenade — and Badu was in full command of the moment.
The sight was as transfixing as it was faintly incongruous, a sensation that was near-constant Friday night as Badu made a sold-out appearance alongside the DSO.
The woman born Erica Wright, one of the city’s unquestioned artistic icons, was greeted with a standing ovation as “20 Feet Tall” began to take shape. The jam-packed room’s demeanor oscillated between the reserve befitting a recital, and a rowdy end-of-the-week looseness more often glimpsed a few blocks over in Deep Ellum.
Yet the pairing of these Dallas cultural institutions worked, often to spectacular effect. The DSO, led by conductor Ted Hearne, lent a fascinating texture to Badu’s layered, trippy and righteous R&B odysseys. Her Grammy-winning music has always been one of carefully considered layers, and Friday night proved no exception.
There were instances during the 105-minute set where the DSO and Badu were in lockstep — “Twinkle” was a highlight, as was “On & On” and “Soldier” — but as Badu admitted in the 35-minute coda following the orchestra’s departure, the evening hadn’t been effortless: “It’s quite a challenge performing with a symphony,” she explained with a grin. “The whole night I was reading sheet music.”
And that confession illuminated what was so compelling about the enterprise: Badu famously vibrates on her own frequency, arriving onstage when she feels the moment is right (Friday’s performance began only four minutes after its scheduled start time, which felt like a miracle) and letting the music take her where it will, her ace collaborators following her every flick of the fingers and twitch of her hips.
Aligning with a body of musicians reliant upon the rigors of sheet music straitjacketed Badu into channeling her creative impulses within defined boundaries. This friction was occasionally glimpsed as Badu would cue Hearne to bring in the orchestra but then reconsider, leading to some stop-start moments — a reminder of the wonderfully immediate nature of live music, the striving and reaching and searching for the precise components needed to articulate a mood, a feeling, a meaning.
Badu wore all of it lightly, easing into her spot on one of Dallas’ more hallowed stages — while losing herself in the syrupy groove of “… & On,” from 2000’s Mama’s Gun, she let slip a “fuck,” and immediately dissolved into a bashful grin: “Can I say that?” — cutting the stuffiness with plenty of rib-rattling bass, goofy humor and profound wisdom.
Badu also made time for a brief, deeply moving tribute to the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove, her classmate from the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts.
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“Everything I ever learned about jazz I learned from him,” she said, before improvising a sweet, simple song atop a silvery trumpet solo.
Such sentiment coursed beneath nearly every note Badu and her bandmates played, capping the evening with a phenomenal, extended run through “Other Side of the Game” and “I Want You,” which dripped with an otherworldly eroticism, before concluding everything with a raucous “Didn’t Cha Know.”
“I want you to know I appreciate you greatly for following us,” Badu said to the cheering room, as music bubbled up behind her. “Understanding or not understanding, you’re still here. I’m waiting for you to understand. I’m patient.”
Those grateful words left her smiling lips, the unspoken implication being that, as always with Badu, the journey and all of its infinite detours will forever be far more interesting than the destination.