I’m standing in line at Smith’s Olde Bar, waiting to make the ascent to the legendary upstairs room. I don’t think I’ve ever waited in line for a show here — probably the first indication that I’m in for an interesting night. Once I’m upstairs, I notice a lot of folks are already seated around the perimeter of the carpeted room, chatting and waiting for the show to start. Smith’s bartenders are about the friendliest in the universe though, which makes the waiting that much more pleasant.
I take my drink and hunker down on the floor next to the merch booth, where I begin scribbling a few pre-show notes. The bizarre composition of the audience is perhaps the biggest surprise of the night. The bulk of the crowd consists of older (50+) conservative-looking Caucasian OTP types — guys in khakis and striped polos out on “date night” with their stonewashed capris-clad wives, who are demurely sipping glasses of wine (!?) as they murmur niceties to their hubbies and make small talk with neighboring couples. Given that tonight’s main attraction has been touted as the next best thing since sliced Bill Withers, this strikes me as odd (to say the least). Let’s just say it was not the crowd I was expecting. But whatever floats yer boat, I guess…
Everybody’s here tonight to see singer-songwriter-guitarist wunderkind Michael Kiwanuka. The London-born son of Ugandan immigrants, Kiwanuka started playing guitar in school and worked as a session guitarist for several years, until finally releasing his own material in 2011 (Tell me a Tale and I’m Getting Ready EP’s on Communion Records). Polydor just signed him, and he has a brand new album out now called Home Again. His bluesy brand of acoustic folk-soul has drawn comparisons to a handful of soul greats (Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye) as well as some folkier artists (Van Morrison, Nick Drake). To sum it up succinctly for the uninitiated, I would describe him as Marvin Gaye with a sore throat covering Van Morrison’s Moondance. The sound is old and classic, but the songs are new and fresh and modern. It’s a welcome change from the banal sameness of most indie artists these days.
If nothing else, the fact that this guy is only 25 should surprise you. Not only does he come off sounding like an old soul, but his retro-textured recordings take things one step further by magically transporting the listener to a nostalgic bygone era. Even the album covers look like something you might find at a thrift shop or in your cool uncle’s record collection. However, Kiwanuka still manages to bring us something unique and different — you’ve heard it before, yet you’ve never heard anything like it in your life.
Despite his status as a breakthrough act, Kiwanuka has already managed to claim the top spot in Sound of 2012, this year’s installment of BBC’s annual music poll, as the most promising British act to watch this year. After supporting Adele on a number of tour dates last year, he made a well-received appearance at SXSW 2012, along with appearances at several other festivals. Kiwanuka’s been making the rounds and paying his dues, that’s for sure. In fact, tonight he’s come fresh from the crowds at Bonnaroo.
I was under the impression that there would be at least one opening act, so imagine my surprise to see Kiwanuka and his band shuffling onstage unassumingly. In fact, I wasn’t even paying attention and didn’t realize he’d come out until I heard lots of cheering and looked up to see him adjusting the microphone and smiling shyly at the crowd. He’s backed by another guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, a percussionist, and somebody on keys. He and his band are dressed in an unofficial uniform of jeans and plaid shirts with rolled-up sleeves, with a few pairs of hipster glasses and a driver’s cap thrown in for good measure. They look like an indie rock band from Brooklyn. But as soon as they start to play, they sound like something different entirely.
A dreamy, textural musical landscape unfolds, featuring Kiwanuka’s rich vocals and skilled use of layered percussion (a standard drum set overlaid with bongos, tambourine, egg shakers, and the like). Kiwanuka starts off playing his electric guitar, but goes acoustic for the second song (he’ll switch back and forth throughout the evening). The second song,“Tell Me a Tale,” rings out with all the brilliance of the album version, but with fewer groovy production tricks and more earnest strumming, with everything falling into a spirited jam session at the end. “Worry Walks Beside Me” follows, bringing us along on another heartfelt nostalgia trip with a little pensive, atmospheric Hammond worked in to drive the message home. We hear a few more songs, including the standout single “I’m Getting Ready,” a Nick Drake-meets-Ben Harper acoustic guitar-centric spiritual affirmation.
Then the band leaves the stage so Kiwanuka can do a few songs by himself: “Rest,” “Any Day Will Do Fine,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Lasan.” All three prove to be so memorable that they’ll be forever etched in my mind. You can feel the raw emotion in Kiwanuka’s voice. In fact, it’s almost tears-inducing at points. Here’s a guy, his soul stripped bare, singing his heart out with no holds barred…and you actually believe him. That’s such a rare and profound thing.
The band members are all clearly professional and accomplished musicians, who play with such feeling that their emotion is tangible. They’re a fitting match for Kiwanuka’s own soulful style, no doubt. But sometimes the complexity of the music can overwhelm the simple purity of his vocals and guitar strumming, ironically watering them down instead of bolstering them up. Sometimes less is more. Hence I’m secretly disappointed to see the band rejoining Kiwanuka onstage for a few closing songs. Kiwanuka’s voice starts to falter a bit on “Home Again” (he explains that he overexerted himself at Bonnaroo), and we get two more songs after that, one of which is a fun retro-soul-apalooza that has the crowd nodding to the beat and stomping their feet. Then all of a sudden, he’s thanking the audience, the band is waving its goodbyes, everybody’s slipping off the stage, and everything’s over way too soon.
Having now seen him with and without the band, I can say without hesitation that Kiwanuka’s star shines brightest when it’s just him and his guitar alone onstage. His solo performances are at once powerful and vulnerable. I got goosebumps more than a few times. Watching him play makes you feel like you’re witnessing something truly special for the very first time — one of the hallmarks of a gifted performer. Still, you never get the sense that he’s “performing” or doing anything other than being himself and singing straight from the heart.
All things considered, it was an enjoyable evening of beautiful music. Probably the only thing that made it less than perfect was the utter rudeness of the crowd throughout most of the show. People would not shut up. It’s one thing when you’re at a big honking venue like Philips (where nobody can hear you) or some snotty punk show (where nobody cares), but when a guy this talented gets on stage, you shut the eff up and listen. It’s a respect thing — not just for the artist, but for the other folks in the audience who paid good money to watch the show, not to hear you take a call from your buddy at the top of your voice in the middle of a quiet song. No siree, bro! We’re here to listen to an inspiring artist play his music. So just take that mess on outside, now, willya? I know I sound like a bitter geriatric, but I don’t care. I’m starting to think that this whole loud, rude, endlessly blabbering audience thing has become something of an epidemic in Atlanta. I mean, aren’t we known for our good breeding, impeccable manners, and Southern hospitality? C’mon now, y’all! Hush that fuss!
Kiwanuka’s one of those artists that you know should be huge, but for whatever reason, he’s not yet getting the attention he deserves. Maybe the secret’s just not out yet. Maybe people will catch on. I don’t know. I just know this kid’s got something special, and he wants to share it with the world. If you by chance find yourself on the east coast later this week, try to catch him live — he’s got several shows in New York and dates in Philly and DC. At the very least, do yourself a favor and check out his new album and older EP’s. You’re in for a real treat.
Official site: http://michaelkiwanuka.com