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Pair bring fluid sounds to festival


In a way, the combination made sense.

Erykah Badu and Chaka Khan, two of the most idiosyncratic and subtly innovative artists in soul, headlined the fifth annual African American Heritage Festival at Camden Yards Saturday and last nights, respectively.

In her own time, each artist has extended and flipped her musical influences. When Badu broke out in 1997, the Dallas native was unlike any female R&B; vocalist before her. Yet her vocal approach (a vinegary Diana Ross tossed with sweeter elements of Billie Holiday) was obviously steeped in yesterday as her music and lyrics pushed R&B; forward, sparking the "neo-soul" movement. As the focal point of the legendary '70s funk-pop band Rufus, Khan blended an unlikely combination of Aretha Franklin's emotional firepower, Tina Turner's unbridled sexiness and Sarah Vaughan's bebop-informed music vocabulary into a style that was old and new and highly influential.

In concert, each performer has a reputation for being unpredictable. Between songs, Badu might veer off into a long rant about mysticism, numerology, societal ills and God knows what else while, back in the day, Khan might stumble onstage clearly under the influence of something. (In her candid 2003 biography, Chaka! Through the Fire, the soul veteran says she gave up drugs in the '90s.) But at the Heritage festival, Badu and Khan were mostly charged and fluid.

After an awkward and painfully off-pitch (but brief) performance by "local talent" Jameirra Vessels, Badu sauntered onstage, chewing gum and waving a burning incense stick, an ever-present prop in her show. She and her eight-piece band kicked off the nearly two-hour set with her brilliant 2002 Grammy-winning single, "Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)."

Given that hip-hop informs the spirit of her shows (the diced-up, rhythm-heavy music, the on-the-corner language), the song was a fitting opener. The most thrilling thing about a Badu concert (aside from her weird wardrobe and mammoth Afro wig) is the way she and her airtight band flip the music, much like a DJ splices beats. (In fact, Badu's band includes a DJ.)

Halfway through "Danger," a single from 2003's Worldwide Underground, the band slowed down the groove and Badu muffled and dragged out her vocals, imitating the strangely popular "chopped and screwed" sound from Houston.

Then the group sped up the song, splicing in the beat from Tupac's 1996 classic "California Love," before ending on a churchy, slightly sanctified rhythm. The disparate musical styles were used to illustrate the song's lyrical tale of a drug hustler going to jail and the woman he leaves behind.

This was the perfect segue to "The Otherside of the Game," from Badu's acclaimed '97 debut, Baduizm. The drowsy, mid-tempo number details the pain and confusion the woman feels about falling in love with a hustler and supporting his "occupation."

Although Badu's music can feel refreshingly improvised on stage, she has a tendency to stay in the same tempo too long. The middle part of her show lagged with mid-tempo songs: "On & On" bled into "... & On," which flowed into "Next Lifetime," which dragged into "Kiss Me on My Neck." She finally picked up the pace just a bit on "Back in the Day." Before ending with a shuffling, slightly disco take on "Tyrone," she previewed a song she's working on: a witty, funky number about a saucy woman with an aversion to underwear.

Backed by a powerful, young band last night, Khan breezed through her greatest hits. Her signature wild, purplish mane blown by two fans near her mike stand, the eight-time Grammy winner opened with "I Feel For You," the Prince tune that brilliantly married hip-hop and soul back in 1984. That number smoothly segued into a bottom-heavy version of "What Cha Gonna Do For Me," a 1981 R&B; chart-topper for the Chi-Town native.

Although there was too much reverb during her hourlong set, Khan's vocals were amazingly agile, soaring over the music. After more than 30 years of belting and wailing, the funk legend's voice shows hardly any sign of wear. If anything, Khan sounds more engaged and soulful than she did during her heyday with Rufus.

She revisited those heady days with the sultry "Everlasting Love" from 1977 and "Pack'd My Bags," a classic cut from 1974's Rufusized. She ended her well-paced set with her first solo hit from '78, "I'm Every Woman," turning Camden Yards into an open-air disco.

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