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Hurricane Erykah hits

Erykah Badu's 'Vortex Tour' at the Greek Theatre reaffirms her stature as a visionary and creative force.

June 14, 2008|Jeff Weiss | Special to The Times

Roughly three quarters of the way through her triumphant two-hour set Thursday night at the Greek Theatre, Erykah Badu paused to explain the meaning of the word "vortex" to the capacity crowd.

According to Badu, a vortex is a "swirling cloud of energy that sucks everything into its orbit." Further explaining the nomenclature behind "The Vortex Tour," her two-month jag across the United States, Badu declared that there are five natural vortices on the Earth and "whenever this tour isn't near one, we're going to create one of our own using the energy of the audience."

Of course, by this point, the information seemed re- dundant.

From the second Badu graced the stage, preceded by a 10-minute intro of space-age stoner soul played by her seven-piece backing band, it was abundantly clear that few sets in recent memory could top Badu's combination of time-stopping talent, enormous energy and chimerical creativity.

Clad in a red and black plaid pantsuit, oversized plastic Bo Diddley glasses and a cascading Angela Davis afro, Badu applied an overwhelming centripetal force to the Greek Theatre. A star of the most galactic sort, in performance Badu seems submerged by the music, drowning in perfect rhythms, snatching the mike stand with thrusting rock-star swagger, convulsing shoulders, twitching hips and, of course, the unrestrained beautiful violence of her gravity-defying wail.

Promoting "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)," the set was cleaved into halves, the first devoted to exclusively new material, the latter consisting of a greatest-hits performance with Badu resuscitating modern classics like "On and On," "Love of My Life" and "Bag Lady." But it was the interpretation of her most recent record that illumined the light years Badu has traveled from her neo-soul roots.

Her only work recorded sans live instrumentation, the more hip-hop minded "New Amerykah" remains outstanding on wax, but freed from the confines of the laptop, the self-proclaimed "analog girl in a digital world" and her band extended their arrangements to their furthest perimeters, reeling them in right before the point of self-indulgence.

Incorporating everything from jazzy Billie Holiday coos to feisty raps to psychedelic P-Funk to sun-kissed Stax soul, to even an interlude featuring the Lightnin' Hopkins blues classic "Black Ghost Blues," Badu's performance successfully traversed the gamut of 20th century African American popular music while reaffirming her place as one of the most visionary and creative forces in contemporary music.

As for openers, the Roots, they delivered a set that again proved why even 15 years after their debut, "Organix," they remain rap's consummate professionals and the genre's most dependable live show. In 50-minute econo-rap mode, the legendary Philadelphia crew ran through material from their new album “Rising Down” and a medley of hip-hop jams including Nas' "Hip-Hop Is Dead," Biz Markie's "She's Just a Friend" and Mims' "This Is Why I'm Hot."

The performance's twin highlights arrived via Black Thought and Roots guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas, with the former delivering a dazzling performance of "75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)" that evidenced his reputation as the archetypal "rapper's rapper," while Douglas finished the set with a pyrotechnical display of hallucinatory Hendrixian solos that caused the crowd to rise to their feet, jaws agape.

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