Raphael Saadiq – review

O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

The sharply dressed man finger-snapping onstage toured with Prince as a teenager, became a pop star in the US in his 20s, produced a handful of classic records in his 30s and is now settling smoothly into his role of urbane soul-pop auteur. Raphael Saadiq stands on the edge of the stage, cupping his ear for more applause; he shakes hands with the entire front row, twice; he even filches someone's mobile phone and fiddles with it, every inch the star.

Saadiq is not exactly a household name in the UK, but his latest records – last month's Stone Rollin' album, and its predecessor, 2008's The Way I See It – crown a Zelig-like career rich in the pleasures of vintage rhythm and blues. He is the kind of guy who can get Stevie Wonder out of bed in the dead of night to lay down a track in the studio. Saadiq's last big gig before this tour was leading the band at the Grammies in February, when Mick Jagger performed his Solomon Burke tribute. Wielding his guitar, the exuberant Saadiq bounded most undeferentially around Jagger at the very front of the stage as though to say, "this is my music, buddy".

Tonight, Saadiq leads a seven-strong outfit that might have been lifted straight out of a 60s soul revue – men in berets, a backing singer in white go-go boots and matching hairband – armed with tunes that all sound like forgotten classics. "Sure hope you mean it, sure hope you love me girl," Saadiq sings doo-woppishly. Is it the Temptations? No, it's just a flashback to "Sure Hope You Mean It" from his last album, a record steeped in Motown and Philly soul.

"Don't mess with my man, don't mess with my boy," glowers Saadiq's go-go girl. It sounds like another canonical work, but it's the catchy and assured single by Saadiq's old band, Lucy Pearl. "Don't Mess With My Man" made it into the UK top 20 in 2000, and it is greeted with a roar of recognition. The gig is bookended by two bouts of "Staying in Love", the knock-down, standout track from The Way I See It, a fabulous song about how easy it is to fall in love, and how tricky it is to stay that way.

It could almost be a metaphor for Saadiq's set tonight. The vintage authenticity of Saadiq's works is never in question. His easygoing sound is so very easy to fall for. Saadiq is a master of the old arts, having assiduously tended the flame of vintage soul well before it was fashionable to do so. When Amy Winehouse's Back To Black (2006) unleashed the floodgates on retro, the Oakland-born, LA-based Saadiq had already been at it for years. His late-80s multi-platinum R&B group, Tony! Toni! Toné!, featured real instruments and a throwback song-and-dance feel. Saadiq went on to lend various clients his skills in the 90s, culminating with troubled neo-soul pin-up D'Angelo, who released two classic albums and then plunged into drug-related obscurity. Saadiq co-authored D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)", which won a Grammy in 2001. As Saadiq tells it, he cheekily popped into the studio to cadge a spliff off D'Angelo, and ended up penning neo-soul's minimal masterwork.

Over the course of a two-hour performance, however, Saadiq's relentless perkiness can flatline a little; so much un-embellished nostalgia can seem a little trite. Stone Rollin' – Saadiq's latest album – offers up a take on black pop and rock'n'roll, which is the next logical place for Saadiq the revivalist to go. But the Beatles-y "Radio" feels slight, like a less interesting rerun of OutKast's "Hey Ya". You yearn for a little of the mischief that Saadiq displayed at the Grammies. It is the eve of the royal wedding, and it can occasionally feel like we are witnessing the slickest wedding band on earth.

And then, suddenly, a switch is pulled, and Saadiq's set comes alive again. "Good Man" is one of the new album's outstanding tracks, a meditation on lost love and doing right whose excellent video, incidentally, features Cutty from The Wire. The drama tonight is compromised only slightly by an extended guitar solo whose attempt to invoke Prince doesn't succeed.

Saadiq returns for the encore a changed man. He has swapped his wedding band threads for jeans, a red T-shirt, a natty hat, and more of Stone Rollin's compelling dark side. "Over You" is a fantastic psychedelic soul track. It all ends with "Go to Hell", a rousing tune in which Marvin Gaye looms large. It lays bare a little of the inner workings of a man whose smoothness might otherwise feel just a little plastic.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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