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…
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.
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.
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!
Official site: http://michaelkiwanuka.com
Jonah Parzen-Johnson at Lilypad
Jonah Parzen-Johnson has an innate ability to make the baritone sax sound like bagpipes, and maybe that’s why I cried.
Mostly I cried because Jonah tells radiant stories with his saxophone and analog synth, working the brass and pedals to recreate the framework which surrounds his album Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow: Parzen-Johnson wanted to make “something of myself that’s for everybody else.”
Jonah opened his set with “Stay There, I’ll Come to You,” showcasing the harmony between synth and sax right off the bat. With haunting lilts, the two combined into a ribbon of melody, pulsating inside the ear as well as the heart. Much like the song’s title, Jonah was the one approaching the audience as an experimental troubadour of tête-à-tête.
The back stories and thoughts behind each song tied in so well with the raw, almost throaty sax, developing such strong, emotional resonance with the musical layers. The skeleton shook.
Speedy Ortiz “riiiiise above and gliiiiiide away” at The Sinclair
The Sinclair was a packed house Wednesday night for the Speedy Ortiz CD release party; as a hometown gig for the Northampton, MA-based band, kinetic warmth buzzed through friends and fans alike as Sadie Dupuis and crew played their freshly-release Foil Deer track-by-track.
What’s a party without some guests, though? That’s where Krill and Mitski come in.
Krill kicked off the night with some tracks from A Distant Fist Unclenching, other goods from Lucky Leaves. Lead singer/bassist Jonah Furman brought to mind early (read: good) Billy Corgan, which I’m not sure he will appreciate. But I think he’ll appreciate this: I couldn’t stop laughing because then I kept thinking about Marilyn Manson telling Billy Corgan that he looked like Charlie Brown.
Opening with “Theme from Krill,” the Boston trio has a knack for rhythm and melody that burrows into your brain. The dreamy bleakness of “Purity of Heart.” The discordant garage rock and hiccupping guitar and warbly Scooter-ness of “Foot.” Krill’s sound is a good, comfy noise that keeps you wiggling and all that good stuff. Be sure to catch the band at Boston Calling.
Years & Years at Royale Boston
During winter storm Juno, UK electro pop group Years & Years were forced to cancel the first show of their two-night stint in New York City back in January. After the snow finally melted, they made the rounds again this past March, playing several shows in California, South by Southwest before finally landing in Boston.
Due to popular demand, the show was moved from The Sinclair to the Royale in downtown’s Theater District.
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