If you're allergic to good music, you didn't want to be at the kickoff of Groovin' in the Garden last night. Former Tony Toni Tone Front man Raphael Saadiq and his four-piece band were in full bloom, putting some funk on the flowers around the audience at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The opening acts were nothing to sneeze at either.
Malaysian artist Yuna began her acoustic set with "Someone From Out of Town," and apt selection for a first-time visitor. The singer's voice recalls that of UK pop chart buster Adele, but without the oversinging. Her subtle delivery offered a new perspective on Nirvana's "Come as You Are," a highlight of the night. Yuna displayed the grace and humility of an artist who is willing to wait for an audience to come around -- and it did.
After an awkward pause -- there really needs to be an emcee at these events -- Danish duo Quadron quietly took the stage. Singer Coco O. and musician Robin Hannibal were equipped with a couple of keyboards and a laptop. Like the Swedish band Little Dragon, the group meshes soulful vocals with electronic sounds. Their version of Michael Jackson's "Baby Be Mine," is excellent example of how to make soul music without guitars and drums. They transformed the pop superstar's playful demand into a desolate plea, as Coco O. crooned over a sparse electronic soundtrack.
The crowd warmed to the group after the Motown-tinged "Pressure," towards the end of the 45-minute set. It's hard to win over people who only like what they know, but now the 2,100 people at the botanical garden last night know Quadron.
California native Raphael Saadiq, born Charles Ray Wiggins, has reinvented himself almost as many times as David Bowie. He led a top-notch R&B band with his brother and cousin in the 1990s, started and ended a innovative rap and R&B hybrid group called Lucy Pearl and was reborn as a high priest of neo soul with his debut as a solo artist, "Instant Vintage," in 2002. Saadiq is now known for the retro-soul sound found on his recent releases, including the just-dropped "Stone Rollin'." Fortunately, the man in black that strapped on a white guitar at the gardens still knows the songs and sounds that he's made over his 23 years of fame.
The singer opened with "Staying in Love," from his 2008 release, "The Way I See It." The mostly older crowd was receptive and some even attempted to bring back some old dance moves. No serious injuries were reported.
An advantage to making new music that sounds like old music is that it sounds familiar, even to first-time listeners. Saadiq continued with more upbeat tracks from his recent albums, the rocking "Heart Attack," a funky "100 Yard Dash" and the funk brothers-flavored, "Love That Girl." Saadiq and his superb band got the crowd open, but many were still in their seats. Oddly, once things slowed down, the audience got up.
Saadiq reached back to some of his hits with Tony Toni TonÃ©, and even though he only touched on the ballads, such as "Anniversary," "Lay Your Head on My Pillow" and "It Never Rains in Southern California," the momentum of the show continued to build. After he performed some of his early solo work, he revealed a crucial step in his creative process.
"If my music don't make me do this," he says while imitating the movements of Earth Wind & Fire lead singer Maurice White, "Then you won't hear it. 'Cause it probably won't come out."
The singer left the stage with a wave and, after a few minutes, returned for an extended encore. Although some folks had left after his faux exit, he thanked the crowd for appreciating his music, although it took them a while to do so.
"I can't leave Virginia like that," he said during the encore. "I got to do my D'Angelo song."
A rocked-out version of "You Should Be Here," his duet with the Virginia native, followed. His solo version of the song was a fitting homage to a singer that has been missing from music scene for more a decade. Like an old fashioned musical revue, Saadiq closed with the same song he opened with, but to a healthier response from the crowd. People had heard it before.