The hasty announcement of a Toronto show by R&B legend Erykah Badu a mere two weeks before the scheduled date caught many fans by surprise. With little new music to promote, confusion arose as to why now, as rumours cropped up of a birthday celebration and word that her set would be a run-through of her groundbreaking 1997 debut disc Baduizm, all of which made for some interesting debates in the lead-up to the concert.
But dropping a show on a city at a moment's notice and drawing a comfortable crowd to a venue as spacious as Toronto's Kool Haus is the type of thing you can do when you're as consistent and captivating an entertainer as Badu has been over the 16 years of her long and winding career. The heady mix of style and bravado, her cooler-than-a-fan demeanour, and — perhaps most significantly — an inspiringly easy-going attitude are what have always made her sets so thoroughly impressive and satisfying, and this night was no different.
The first surprise of the night came as Badu strode casually out onto the stage and began performing songs from Mama's Gun, not the Baduizm set list that had been hinted at in online flyers for the event. Little matter, though, as those tunes went down just as easy, and the fact that her second album was a little fresher in the minds and lives of fans no doubt made for an entirely different listening experience. The decision to cover a record from start to finish generally finds its success in the strength of the material, and while there's no questioning the Grade A status of Mama's Gun, there was a palpable feeling-out period as the singer began her ascent towards the disc's meaty midsection.
The show's true fire, both in Badu's own level of animation and in that of a room still taking things in, came with the self-embracing sentiment of "Cleva," sparking an enthralling energy that carried through emotionally charged fare like "A.D. 2000," "Orange Moon" and "In Love with You." Erykah began to coolly and playfully interact with the audience, calling on them to sing out lines, while similarly directing members of her competent band (which included sister Nayrok and Millie Jackson's daughter Keisha on backing vocals) to drop lines like so. By the time a well-warmed Erykah reached the theatrical show-stopper "Green Eyes," the singer was letting all of her slickness and poise shine, clearly having fun with things as she acted out each of the confounding mental machinations expressed in the song's (for some) all-too-familiar lyrics.
With an enveloping feeling of hanging with family now draped over the room, Badu closed out the remainder of her set with an extended, vampy version of "Other Side of the Game," as well as a few choice cuts from Worldwide Underground, with surprise guest DJ (and producer of Biggie's "One More Chance," among other hits), Rashad "Ringo" Smith in tow. The overwhelming sense as you left the venue was one of wonderment at how this woman, with that powerful voice, commanding presence and so much expectation resting on her shoulders could make what she does onstage look so natural and easy. It's a trait that has always laid at the root of Badu's charm, and really is something to witness.