From Raphael Wiggins, to Saadiq, to Ray Ray and back to Saadiq, modern R&B icon Raphael Saadiq picks up more momentum with each stage of his creative journey. Having lived onstage since he first went on tour with Prince in 1984, Saadiq can effortlessly weave the elements of his discography into a cohesive story, and it flowed delightfully for a sold-out crowd at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday night.
On his past two critically lauded albums, Saadiq immersed himself in ’60s-era rhythm and blues. Many of his peers have sought the same well of inspiration, including Cee Lo Green and R. Kelly. While it has increased Saadiq’s fan base, the verdict among those who’ve been fans since his Tony! Toni! Tone! days is that they’ll wait out this retro-kitsch period until he decides what to do next. This reviewer felt the same way until hearing his band perfectly translate those classically styled songs live.
Saadiq opened the show with a powerful take on “Staying in Love” from 2008’s “The Way I See It.” It evoked the driving funk rock of Buddy Miles, complete with screaming Hammond B3 and Saadiq’s bluesy tone on his Telecaster. The band convincingly sold the time-warp effect, down to its fashions and coordinated dance steps. It was a bit “Five Heartbeats” but way more fun than derivative. “Never Give You Up” was the highlight of this first movement of the concert, conjuring all of the emotional sweetness of any Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ode to one’s “best girl.”
After a quick romp through his “Instant Vintage” and Lucy Pearl periods, which turned the sock hop into a house party, it was time for the quiet storm — a block of Tony! Toni! Tone!’s most beloved slow jams, which had couples swaying and hugging as though no one else was in the room. As the band marinated on the chords of “Anniversary,” Saadiq summoned a “special guest,” a fan who had arranged with the singer in advance to propose to his lady onstage. That fellow is winning at life.
The night’s apex came when Saadiq segued into the most intoxicating groove in his repertoire. Stretching the urgent yet silky bass line of “Skyy, Can You Feel Me” like warm taffy, Saadiq and his ensemble let it simmer at half-tempo before soaring with solos that morphed from bossa nova to jazz fusion to arena rock. Although an encore of more of his recent tunes followed, there really was nothing more to be said after that explosion of musicianship.