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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Kitty Empire

Michael Kiwanuka review – patience is golden

Michael Kiwanuka at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.
‘The colourful stripes are the loudest thing about him’: Michael Kiwanuka at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Clad in a stripy Technicolor dream jacket redolent of Joseph, Michael Kiwanuka shuffles on stage, buffeted by the celestial oohings of his backing singers. “To begin again,” he breathes on Piano Joint (This Kind of Love), “maybe win again.”

The colourful stripes are the loudest thing about Kiwanuka or, indeed, much of this gig; the prospect of his victory sounds tentative rather than certain. This is a long-awaited show by one of Britain’s least showy stars, a soul man of international renown, whose downplaying of everything has been his strongest suit, beginning again.

Of all the tours put on ice for the pandemic, this one feels like it’s had the most protracted of spells in limbo. Released in November 2019, the singer-songwriter’s Kiwanuka album won the Mercury prize in 2020 for its portrait of a wistful and frustrated artist finally coming home to himself, set against a backdrop of lush orchestrations with the shootings of young black men in the US baked into the percussion. (It was also nominated for a Grammy.)

In early 2020, with a tour of the album just beginning, Kiwanuka contracted laryngitis. By the time he was better, the world had stopped. The 2021 Kiwanuka tour reboot was again pushed back, to 2022. (Stormzy’s Heavy Is the Head has had a similar stop-start trajectory, but was released a month later and its tour wrapped more than a month ago.) In the background, the wheel of life ground resonantly on. Kiwanuka featured the sampled words of John Lewis, the civil rights leader and US congressman. Crackly recordings explained the non-violent sit-ins activists conducted in the 60s in then segregated diners, with Lewis highlighting the imperative to “keep loving” those who refused him service. Lewis’s death in July 2020 was especially painful in the context of the new civil rights struggle unfolding in tandem with Covid.

There were births as well as deaths. Kiwanuka confirmed another star: producer Inflo, who later released a succession of exquisitely tooled protest records as Sault and produced albums by Little Simz, his close associate Cleo Sol and, latterly, several tracks of Adele’s 30. Listening again to Kiwanuka, you can hear the series of Sault signatures in embryo in the arrangements, interludes and segues. Choirs gust in, string sections swoon, the ghost of composer and arranger David Axelrod flaps about. It would be incorrect to credit the elegiac set-dressing up to Inflo alone: US super-producer Danger Mouse worked in tandem with Inflo, Kiwanuka and the Bees’ Paul Butler to create a sound world steeped in period warmth, whose depth of field is one of its strongest suits.

Going to a gig in the expectation that it will sound like the record has usually been a fool’s errand. But Kiwanuka and his six-strong band deliver a set so classy and all-enveloping it is almost amniotic, complete with interludes, pregnant pauses and passages when the band just lock into a kind of rapt collective Kiwanuka dream state. The lights, arranged in a series of curves and arches, suggest a gently dazzling series of cocoons; everything looks, sounds and feels a faded sort of burnt-umber-going-on-tan. For the most part, Kiwanuka and his tight, nimble band are backlit in the haze of the smoke machine, standing in for all those period-perfect carcinogens.

Watch Michael Kiwanuka performing You Ain’t the Problem on Later… With Jools Holland.

Naturally, he plays the hits from his other two albums. There’s a lively clap-along for his best-known calling card, Black Man in a White World, from 2016’s Love & Hate, an album that prefigured the African-inspired cover art and the “I won’t change my name” vibes of Kiwanuka, in which this Londoner of Ugandan origin embraced his background and his out-of-time musical tastes. There are hoots of recognition too for the song that first put Kiwanuka on the map, the bruised folk-soul of Home Again, from 2012.

But the focus remains on the expertly recreated sound of Kiwanuka, with the ersatz strings and horns marshalled by keyboard player Steve Pringle sufficiently dramatic to pass muster. Solid Ground begins as a series of oscillations and a Lewis sample; Kiwanuka accompanies himself on keys. Later, his vocals and the synth strings answer each other and the band finally come in, Michael Jablonka’s electric guitar cutting through like an angry wasp. Jablonka never puts a finger wrong, trading solos elsewhere with Kiwanuka that pull off the difficult trick of recalling Jimi Hendrix while being studiedly unostentatious; his west African motifs are one of the best things about one of Kiwanuka’s greatest songs, You Ain’t the Problem.

If you had to pick a bone, it would be that for all Kiwanuka’s extensive record collector tastes – his really early stuff sounds like Terry Callier – a few songs feel as if they are just a key change away from being Crazy by Gnarls Barkley (AKA Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green). At any second, it feels as if the stark acoustic start of Hero might morph into Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower.

But it never does. Instead, Kiwanuka’s warm and weary questioning powers up magnificently into a full-band crescendo – its suddenness and loudness landing an unexpectedly impactful blow in the context of a velvet glove of a gig.

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