Michael Kiwanuka in Exeter- One Year On

Last week Michael Kiwanuka, the enigmatic thirty-year-old London-born soul-pop singer/songwriter returned to Exeter almost exactly one year after his Phoenix gig. This time in the much bigger University hall, and with a larger entourage, Kiwanuka proved just how much success can change a young artist’s performance, even if he doesn’t fully realise it.

The inclusion of the three-piece gospel choir and the wind section (one guy deftly manoeuvring between tenor sax and flute at the drop of a bass note) was a great idea, but not necessarily well-played out. The singers were great, and accentuated Kiwanuka’s voice with harmonies that added depth and character to the more soulful numbers. The saxophone was far too loud, without being properly audible- a wall of sound seemed to emanate from the far-left corner of the stage, and the subtleties of the melody were lost to this sound design malfunction. And the fact that he was adapting between the two instruments so fluently mid-track meant that the sound was never going to be right for either instrument.

michael kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka at the Great Hall, Exeter

The rest of the band were as tight as ever- the lead electric guitar, keys, bass, drums and percussionist have obviously worked together for a lot longer than these new members, and it showed. The guitar especially was beautiful, and played with so much soul that at one climax I heard the person behind me say ‘reminds me a bit of Hendrix’ (perhaps a little hyperbolic, but we’ve all been in the hold of a decent guitarist on a Monday night in Devon).

Kiwanuka himself was on as good a form as ever: his naturally shy stage presence seems to evaporate the moment he plucks either his electric or acoustic, and his voice rings out with a truth that seems implausible from such a young musician. It was, again, only the sound design that let him down. You can tell a vocalist’s mic is caked in too much reverb when they try to tell the audience an amusing anecdote and it gets lost somewhere between him and the third row. Not much of a talker anyway, Kiwanuka’s occasional funny stories were only worthwhile if you were devotedly standing at the front of the hall. It seems strange to me that someone with a voice so naturally full of depth and feeling should need so much layered onto their vocal mic. This made the performance lose a fair amount of its effect, as you would expect only being able to hear half the lyrics would do.

The set list was mixed up a little from last year, with the inclusion of the 2012 top forty single ‘Home Again’. Slightly out of place amongst the plethora of soul-funk pieces surrounding it, this track seemed to hint at a weaker sense of Kiwanuka feeling confident enough to be able to do what he wants at his own gigs. Well received by his audience, it seems he may have decided to do what makes the people (and perhaps his manager?) happy.

And then there’s the encore. Having rounded up what seemed to be a generally well-thought-out and executed set (assuming the sound guys are in-house and not part of the entourage), Kiwanuka and band insisted on giving us, the people supposedly wanting of it, a dramatic and over-played encore. We knew it was going to happen- he was yet to play two of the most important singles of the 2016’s Love and Hate– but there was a small part of me holding on to the idea that the beautiful ending of the first set could be the way Kiwanuka wants to be remembered. I was, of course, wrong.

Kiwanuka thanked the band, one by one, before they took leave of the stage to the roar of the crowd (especially Hendrix-junior). The keys player was the last left standing, beautifully repeating the final two bars of the melody the band had spent fifteen minutes gradually stripping back. Finishing on a cliff-hanger, without satisfying us with the final note to make the perfect cadence, our keys player stood up unconfidently and walked the long way off-stage, without once even looking up, as if rehearsal in the garage was over and his mum had called him for in for his tea. It was beautiful. Celebrating the true nature of good live music, without charm and charisma, just showcasing that one guy at the back who’s a fantastic musician but kind of just forgets the crowd is there, this was a perfect end for a show like this. It was only when the house lights didn’t ping back on that I realised we were now going to stand here for ten minutes waiting for them all to trope back on and give us another two numbers.

Why, Kiwanuka, why?

Please, be confident in your own performance so that it doesn’t warrant this frankly ridiculous notion that you’re not an established and well-loved performer until you’ve made your paying audience scream your name at you because we cannot stand the idea that your hour-and-a-half set is over. Aside from some technical stuff that probably comes together with the venue (which didn’t suit the set-up as much as the much smaller hall from last year), this was a great gig. If only two-album pop stars would realise that they can do whatever they want, without playing up to the audience’s expectations, and that the true Devonian fans will still be there to pretend they understand any of the racial-tension that they pour so authentically into your lyrics.

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