Raphael Saadiq at the Wiltern: A Perfect-Pitch Frontman
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The band is a machine. The seven-piece outfit, clad in matching black suits, powers on as the horn section chimes in while the drummer fuels the engine of this funky thing. The backup singers high-step to the music, locked in unison, then comes the heart-throb, the front man, beyond dapper in red suit and Buddy Holly glasses, crooning doo-waps and yeah-yeahs to the crowds of swooning girls. But this is not the Motown era. There were no poodle skirts or pony tails. It was Friday night at the Wiltern Theater, 2009, and this is the world according to Raphael Saadiq.
For some Saadiq's name may be unfamiliar, but most would recognize the sounds of his band with his brother and cousin: Tony! Toni! Toné!. As a solo artist, Saadiq reclaims r&b from the New Jack Swing sound he helped to create in the late eighties with his former group. His solo work purifies rhythm & blues to its essential '50s and '60's sound, and ignores nearly half a century of music: He completely forgoes hip hop, and barely touches on disco and funk. Motown and early rock seep into "Just One Kiss," as Saadiq's voice gently wavers over the lush Phil Spector-styled Wall of Sound rhythm section.
His clean vocals recall Nat King Cole's precision and Curtis Mayfield's airy falsetto, and his cool stage presence, either cradling a guitar or dancing along with the frenetic backup singers, channel Richie Valens and James Brown.
Saadiq's understated guitar work even recalls the days before Jimi Hendrix made the axe into fire-starter, back when a Statocaster was just a rhythm instrument. From learning the ropes while playing with Prince and Shelia E to propelling Tony! Toni! Toné! to superstardom, Saadiq's is a pitch-perfect frontman.
He slides up to the mic, and tosses his glasses aside to extol soulful tales of love, sweetness, and second chances. Saadiq's spex -- apparently Clark Kents not Buddy Hollys -- weren't the only pieces of apparel he deemed unnecessary. As the night went on, he lost his tie, his jacket, shirt, and by the encore, he played bass in just his undershirt.
After swaying though the upbeat, clap-along "Love that Girl" from his critically admired album, The Way I See It, and funky lament, "Be Here," Saadiq revealed his feelings about striking out on his own.
"Journalists ask why I'm bigger in Europe. But I know you like me. It's nice to play a little place like this," he said to the impeccably dressed* masses crowed together in the balcony and the floor.
For an arena-filling professional like Saadiq, the Wiltern may seem small, but for the audience basking his soulful glow, he's bigger and better than ever.
*One could only imagine the embarrassment if the ever-stylish Saadiq noticed your hoodie and Chucks in the audience