Raphael Saadiq | 02.19.20, The Pageant

To call it “The Jimmy Lee Tour” is a misnomer. When a tour is dedicated to an album, I anticipate said album will have some kind of majority representation in the setlist. I imagine it will comprise at least half of the songs played. I definitely expect to hear more than half of the tracks on the album. Raphael Saadiq’s 2019 release, Jimmy Lee, was exceptional among all releases last year and exceptional among his catalogue. I was 100% on board for the personal, introspective, thought-provoking social commentary and prose, the inimitably groovy and muscular bass, that is the bulk of Jimmy Lee. I was so looking forward to the heart-wrenching opener “Sinners Prayer” and the earnest pep talk of “My Walk.” I’d been dancing around my kitchen to the irresistible and infectious single, “So Ready,” for months, imagining the joy of sharing this beat with a theater full of fellow funk fiends.

Inexplicably, I got no “So Ready.” I got very little Jimmy Lee at all.

Had it been called something other than “The Jimmy Lee Tour,” I would have set expectations differently. Saadiq is a crazy talented and prolific artist. He’s a producer, composer, and songwriter—lyricist and multi-instrumentalist. He writes for himself and with others—Usher, D’Angelo, John Legend, Solange, Andra Day, and Mary J. Blige, to name a few. He’s performed in groups and solo. The self-described “most slept-on” artist’s contributions can be heard in soundtracks and seen in dapper fashion trends. Had this been billed something more like “An Evening with Raphael Saadiq,” I would have been prepared for a sampling across his past decades of songwriting, and I would have appreciated the new tracks when they appeared in the widely varied lineup.

Unfortunately, “The Jimmy Lee Tour” featured more Tony! Toni! Toné! songs than newer material, more tracks from his 2002 album, Instant Vintage, than Jimmy Lee. And those old songs have a markedly different aesthetic from Jimmy Lee. I showed up for “You may not be in Rikers Island / You may be in Rikers Island in your own mind / Nevertheless, you gotta unleash yourself.” Instead, I got “Make sure that you look good / Make sure that I smell good / Let’s purchase two new Bentleys.” Scales tipped far on the side of romantic R&B slow jams, it felt much more like couples night than an inspiration.

I can only imagine the new album, written about his older brother’s fatal struggle with heroin addiction, feels too intensely personal to summon onstage before an audience. Saadiq played exactly three tracks from Jimmy Lee: “I Feel Love” and “Something Keeps Calling Me” came early in the evening, before he had any conversation with the crowd. They felt fresh and inspired, daring and a little risky. In other words—exciting. The only other selection from the album, “This World is Drunk,” was apparently a rare treat, something he hasn’t played on the road much but wanted to test before bringing it back home to Oakland. It was fantastic, and the crowd responded with warranted enthusiasm.

Despite the false advertising, Saadiq still gave an impressive performance. He shuffled constantly between guitar, vocals, and keys. Those killer guitar solos—I had no idea he had it in him. But it only made me wish even harder that he had picked up the bass for even a second, as his basslines are a driving force and signature of his style.

He opened up more in the latter half of the set, sharing personal anecdotes about his brother and his puppies, his sister’s record collection, his dad’s old car, and his experience in the music industry, working with Earth, Wind and Fire.

With such an extensive catalogue spanning decades and genres, with so much about him to appreciate, I know it’s impossible to please everyone. He succeeded in shining a little light on the wide-ranging aspects of his style and career. Had it been billed differently, I would have been there for it. And while DJ Duggz did well to foreshadow the flavor of the set to come with “cookout and roller skating” tunes—and the thirty-or-so folks doing the electric slide on the floor of The Pageant was definitely a highlight of the evening—it seemed much of the crowd also came for the more philosophical Saadiq.

“Blind Man,” is a much older tune about the allure of filling a deep emotional void with the superficial. It brought Saadiq—returned from a mid-set wardrobe change, from metal-studded funky desperado to full moon-print robe-wearing bohemian—to pour his soul into that microphone, and we were there for it. The woman in front of me who had been live streaming the whole show actually put down the screen momentarily to applaud and shout “AWESOME” in appreciation of the emotive parable. An older gentleman continually shouted from the floor for Saadiq to “PLAY THE BLUES!” The pianist’s stirring solo under a single spotlight was one of the more remarkable moments of the night, quietly captivating, and a rare treat amongst the kind of live concerts I’m accustomed to seeing.

It just felt like Saadiq sold himself short. He didn’t need a greatest hits show to pique people’s interest. But maybe that wasn’t the problem. Jimmy Lee is complex, thought-provoking, and intimate. It is full of heartbreak and loss. I can only guess that maybe it’s too raw to summon those feelings live. But he sold us on that burning ambition, and instead he gave us mostly conventional romance. I’m calling it: false advertising. | Courtney Dowdall

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