At Spirit Fest, Erykah Badu, Common and a tribute to Chuck Brown
The Summer Spirit Festival, an annual day of R&B, soul, hip-hop, funk and go-go, is different each year, but there have always been a couple of constants — weather hot enough for a temporary moratorium on making fun of sweat stains, and a festival-stealing set from the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown.
On Saturday, the seventh annual Spirit Fest, headlined by singer Erykah Badu, was held at Merriweather Post Pavilion, and although the Godfather of Go-Go passed away in May, thanks to the magic of special effects, Brown’s record of perfect attendance at the event remained intact.
A Chuck Brown tribute was one of the most anticipated moments of the day, in part because of what was billed as a “special surprise.” The performance brought together Brown’s band (including vocalist D. Floyd, keyboardist Sweet Cherie and Brown’s daughter, rapper KK) and go-go icons “Big Tony” Fisher of Trouble Funk, Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott of E.U., and Rare Essence founding members James “Jas” Funk and Andre “White Boy” Johnson.
The surprise was not, as popularly rumored, a Chuck Brown hologram a la Tupac at Coachella, but that wasn’t a bad guess. After the band rolled for a while and the legends performed some of their own material (Trouble Funk’s “Drop the Bomb” and Essence’s “Lock It” were highlights), Brown’s distinctive raspy voice came through the speakers, and live footage of him appeared on the monitors, edited so that it seemed he was right there with the band. The trick gave KK the chance to duet with her father again on “Chuck Baby.”
“I miss my daddy — this is emotional for me,” she said.
The tribute was preceded by music from independent soul artist Eric Roberson, Brit R&B sensation Estelle and soul revivalists Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who, between their funk/soul rhythms and Jones’ temperature-defying dancing, earned a standing ovation.
Hip-hop heads finally got their fix when the festival’s penultimate act, Chicago rapper Common, hit the stage just before 9 p.m. He didn’t perform numbers from his latest album, last year’s “The Dreamer/The Believer,” instead choosing to do his biggest hits (“I Used To Love H.E.R.,” “The Corner”) and a few romantic raps (“Go,” “Come Close”). He also performed a freestyle that mentioned his past romantic relationship with Badu.
Badu herself emerged several minutes after 10 p.m. On a day so blistering that Estelle repeatedly worried about ruining her hair and Common invited a young woman onstage to wipe him down with a towel, Badu cemented her reputation for otherworldly cool by coming onstage in a sweater.
Badu’s live shows typically rearrange and remix her most popular songs into almost unrecognizable new pieces. But Badu (working from between a drum machine, laptop and small percussion set-up) played things pretty straight. New material — including the alien soul of “20 Feet Tall” and the more grounded “Umm Hmm” from 2010’s “New AmErykah Pt. 2 (Return of the Ankh),” and “On & On” and “Appletree” from 1997’s “Baduizm” — sounded close, if not identical to, the recorded versions.
She ended with hip-hop ode “Love of My Life” and then left the stage: The artist known for constantly pushing boundaries, flouting convention and breaking rules kept to the venue’s 11 p.m. curfew.