Live Last Night: Raphael Saadiq

Unless you're a country crooner, Charlie Ray Wiggins is a tough moniker to hang a career on. You can see why the Tony! Toni! Tone! vocalist/bassist-turned-producer-and-solo-soul man would trade it in for the rhymes-with-sleek Raphael Saadiq. But if his stage name has a modern sheen, his latest LP, last year's Grammy-nominated "The Way I See It," is strictly old school -- a wholly persuasive set of Holland-Dozier-Holland-esque R&B, despite the Jay-Z walk-on at the end.

Late in his sublime, sold-out 9:30 club gig last night, Saadiq rejected the "retro" tag. "I've been playing music like this since I was nine years old," he said during an extended bridge of "Sure Hope You Mean It." It's a bouncy, featherweight love song that despite his protests would fit right in on a mix of Temptations hits. He ticked off a list of influences you'd expect (Otis, Marvin, Sam) and a few you wouldn't (Zeppelin, The Mamas and the Papas) before declaring, "It ain't retro to me."

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

That the Oakland-born bandleader lives very much in the present was obvious from the visceral punch of his disciplined, 90-minute set. A svelte 42, Saadiq could easily pass for 30, and the Buddy Holly glasses he's taken to wearing lately suggest the '90s sitcom clown Steve Urkel, grown up and gone to the gym. Vocally, he's lithe like a young Stevie Wonder -- a pal who guests on his latest album.

Sliding onstage in a cream-colored suit as his airtight band rocked a "Star Time" vamp, Saadiq opened with the upbeat groove of "Keep Marchin'." It was the kind of order the audience was happy to obey all night. The majority of the set came from "The Way I See It," but when Saadiq segued into vintage cuts like Lucy Pearl's "Dance Tonight," or especially the '90s Tony! Toni! Tone! hits "(Lay Your Head on My) Pillow" and "Anniversary," the wheat field of hands in the air confirmed that his audience loves his Old Stuff even more than his older-sounding New Stuff.

Not that prior knowledge of Saadiq's songbook, or Motown's, was required. Saadiq once made an album called "Instant Vintage," but "Instant Indoctrination" is a better description of his live show. In this, his band was key. Sharply dressed in sweater vests and ties as though enrolled in the world's funkiest prep school, the ensemble was fluid, powerful, and attuned to Saadiq's every nonverbal command. The two black-suited singer/dancers who flanked the star were essential participants, keeping the energy at James Brown "Live at the Apollo"-levels throughout the gig. And the way the horn section cried out on "100 Yard Dash" or the closing Katrina victims' tribute, "Big Easy," was a bracing reminder of why laptops and Auto Tune software can never beat a world-class team of performers who leave buckets of sweat on the stage when they're done.

The goldenrod suit Saadiq donned before strapping on a bass for an encore of "Skyy, Can You Feel Me" made him look like a real estate salesman, and the crowd was more than ready to buy. Charlie Ray doesn't like us calling his jams "retro"? No problem: "Timeless" works, too.


By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 25, 2009; 10:06 AM ET Live Last Night
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