The Inside Story of D’Angelo’s Rebirth

 

 

Superjam guru Paul Peck recounts how last year’s show, featuring the return of soulstar D’Angelo, went down—despite missed flights, backstage chaos, and the comeback of one of music’s most elusive and talented voices, live from Bonnaroo.

Pressure was mounting to get the Superjam together, and I’m the guy. It was the beginning of May and I had nothing. Ambitious ideas had been discussed and pursued relentlessly to dead ends. This is often the case on these types of shows: From every angle, building a band from scratch is incredibly challenging. For better or worse, though, these types of gigs are my specialty.

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Hurdle Number One: The band assembly phase. It’s not just about getting the artists to agree to perform; first, it means getting everyone in the chain of decision-makers to grant you access to the artist so that they can even consider whether or not they want to do all the work. This means a lot of explaining about what exactly this weird, challenging, labor-intensive, and risky show is in the first place.

Festival shows are inherently more chaotic and challenging than regular shows—which is one of the reason artists get paid more for them. Most great artists are perfectionists who meticulously plan, prepare, and study the craft of performance, constantly fine-tuning their skill over the course of their careers. Now they have me on the phone, asking them to step outside their comfort zone and learn two hours’ worth of new, usually super-challenging music, to be played after only a day or two of rehearsal, with a whole bunch of new people, for a show in front of an enormous crowd. Oh, and btw—every music publication in the free world will be covering the show extensively, and it will probably be streamed live to the furthest reaches of civilization. If you fuck up, everyone from Tennessee to Kuala Lumpur is going to be trashing you on Twitter in real time. On top of all of that, we’re going to film the whole thing—rehearsals, backstage—immortalizing it all as part of Superjam, the web series. So stakes is high. (I’m getting stressed out about this year’s Superjams just thinking about it!)

I was on the phone with an agent when one of our office interns walked up to my desk. “Questlove is on the phone for you.” I obviously jumped off immediately to take the call. I’ve worked with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer of the Roots, several times, including the first show I ever did for Superfly—a Superjam in New Orleans with him, George Porter, Jr. (of the Meters), Eric Krasno (from Soulive), and Tim Green (one of my favorite all-time sax players). The show was amazing and featured two sets of incredible covers (email me if you’re interested and I’ll try to send you the music). Questlove had an idea. He started off by saying, “Last year at this time I would have said there is a 99% chance this can’t happen; now I’d put it at 50/50—D’Angelo.” My response was “Wow,” and I was thinking 50/50 ain’t that bad.

He added, “He hasn’t performed in the U.S. in 12 years. This would be historic.”

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Ahmir explained his vision, a reunion of Soulquarians and Soultronics Supercharged (D’Angelo’s band for his legendary Voodoo Tour in 2000) with some of the best live musicians around—people like Eric Leeds (saxman from the Family and Prince & the Revolution) and Jesse Johnson (The Time), alongside members of the Roots. Superstar bassist Pino Palladino, who currently tours with The Who and previously performed with Herbie Hancock and Questlove in a Superjam, was the top choice as bassist. His goal was to create music history at Bonnaroo, but above all, he explained, “I’m beside myself with the idea of jamming at Bonnaroo with my brother who I haven’t played music with in over 10 years”.

What I remember about my first show with Questlove was how excited he was to be playing with an amazing group of musicians, and how low-maintenance he was throughout the whole process. I watched him turn giddy talking about what songs to perform, what version and arrangement of each tune, which specific parts to accentuate. It was obvious that he was a music encyclopedia with a producer’s ear—the guy knows everything. That excitement was back as he talked about the possibility of getting D’Angelo back on stage at Bonnaroo. Ahmir loves special shows, he loves Bonnaroo, and he loves going after those magic moments.

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I started calling the band members, and everyone was as excited as Questlove was. It started to feel like it was going to happen. D’Angelo’s camp had given a verbal commitment, but there was still that deep-down fear that something could happen. We were never 100% sure until he walked onstage, and we never announced who the Superjam headliner actually was.

Ahmir was recording with Jimmy Fallon on the day before the gig. The plan was for him to fly out first thing on Saturday first thing, at 5 a.m., arrive in Nashville, and go straight to rehearsal where the cats would be waiting, set up and ready to go. They would have one day to pull together the set, and they would work up until Questlove had to head to the Bonnaroo site for his set with the Roots, directly prior to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the main stage.

After his set, he’d have a few hours to decompress and get the band ready for the Superjam, which would start at midnight. When he showed up in Manchester, though, there was one problem. No D’Angelo. He missed his flight; the reason was unclear.

I stopped by the rehearsal space around noon to check in. I already knew D’Angelo was delayed, as I had been getting constant updates. I wanted to make sure the band was all set, and that Danny Clinch and his documentary team were getting all the access that they wanted. I entered the room and saw Clinch and Co. filming away. Ahmir was behind the kit leading the band through the various part of the Led Zeppelin tune that was in the set list. After the song we spoke for a moment—he assured me that it was going to happen and not to worry, but I could tell he was stressed.

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Sometime during the Roots’ set, D’Angelo arrived in Manchester. When I got the text, it felt like a huge weight was lifted. Instead of a few hours of “down time,” it was straight back to the rehearsal space, where Questlove and the band ran through the set once before going onsite and getting ready for the gig. At this point, most of the gear at the rehearsal space had to be moved to the This Tent, which meant that the one, rushed rehearsal with D’Angelo would have to be on stripped-down equipment. Questlove’s chill time had been immediately transformed into full-on work mode. But he didn’t really ever seem to be out of sorts; this is a situation that he’s not all that uncomfortable with. We were down to a few hours till show time.

I was texting with Questlove while watching the Chili Peppers at the main stage. Things seemed to be moving in the right direction. When I showed up at the tent, he had his hands full prepping the band. When I approached him for the update, he said “This is a stressful moment. It’s going to be fine, though.”  As the crew scrambled to get the gear perfect onstage, Questlove gave the musicians final instructions.

Finally the setlist had been taped in all the positions, the music stands had been set up, and the band was waiting sidestage. Questlove took the stage first, and the tension gave way to goosebumps as he intro’d each member from behind the drum kit. As each person took the stage, the groove expanded. Finally he broke the big secret that we’d all been struggling to keep in the vault for the past month…

“Ladies and Gentleman…D’Angelo.”

 

 

Who would you most like to see make a comeback in a Bonnaroo Superjam?