Michael Kiwanuka at Exeter Phoenix

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Lit by only a few hazy spotlights, Michael Kiwanuka and his band begun to play the first lingering notes of the opening track of his Mercury Prize nominated second album, Love and Hate, to a silent crowd. The still audience hung on to every sound as the music swelled through Cold Little Heart’s sweeping intro; nearing five minutes long it almost forms an album track in it’s own right and certainly provides a dramatic opening to the gig. By the time Kiwanuka takes to the mic, the audience are swaying collectively to the rhythm, eagerly anticipating his voice which finally fills the room with it’s distinctive warmth. The stage comes alive, with Kiwanuka’s band soaring through the ethereal instrumentals and it quickly becomes clear that this gig will go far beyond a showcase of Kiwanuka’s vocal talent, but will become a celebration of the music itself.

It would be a mistake to write Kiwanuka off as an acoustic singer-songwriter as might be expected after a few listens of his earlier work or a look at live sessions on the internet, though these are beautiful in their own right he is clearly moving towards a more complex sound. The upbeat rhythm and funky bass line of One More Night certainly assert this, coming as somewhat of a surprise to the entranced crowd who can’t seem to help themselves but dance along. In terms of audience interaction Kiwanuka keeps his speeches on the shorter side, but it is through his songs that the genuine warmth of his character shines through and captivates his audience. Performing live, his music takes on an earthy quality that may be missed in his recording material; though he and his band are wonderfully cohesive, there is a certain roughness to the very edges of the music that create an inclusive sense of being involved in the music as it is played out in front of you. Though, as an audience member we are simply observers, Kiwanuka makes us feel as though our presence is integral to the performance, even through the most intimate of lyrics.

This intimacy was found in Falling, a reflective track filled with intensely personal lyrics at a slightly slower tempo to what we had seen in the past songs. Once again, the audience stood entranced by the performance; when it comes to conversational song performance it seems as though no one can do it better. Kiwanuka invites his willing crowd into his thoughts, tinged with heartbreak, glimmers of optimism and occasionally frustration. This frustration underlies his performance of Black Man in a White World; the delivery is urgent and bristles with an inescapable energy that encompasses the entire room. Kiwanuka and his band indulge fully in each song, frequently going beyond the album track to create a lingering performance that bursts at every note with full instrumentation and rich vocals.

Nowhere was this shown off more than in The Final Frame, a nostalgic ballad that displayed every inch of Kiwanuka’s talent, as well as that of his band. A certain sincerity underlies Kiwanuka’s particular manner of performance that makes him not just an enjoyable listen, but a genuinely exciting one too. There is more to Kiwanuka as a performer than his Mercury-nominated albums and live, he takes us by the hand to show us this indefinable quality himself.

– Sarah Turnnidge 

(featured image http://www.bbc.co.uk)

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