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Manchester Evening News
Manchester Evening News
Benjamin Blosse

Third time's a charm for Michael Kiwanuka as his soul-infused set lights up Manchester

Michael Kiwanuka walks onto the stage at the Apollo, as his backing band and singers play the first notes. One hand raised to the air to the cheering crowd, he nonchalantly walks up to the microphone and without a moment of hesitation, belts the opening notes out as a multitude of colours light up the stage behind him.

It's almost as if 35-year-old couldn't wait a breath to give the thousands packed into the Apollo the start of his set - and who can blame him or them, given they have waited two years for this moment.

Covid laid waste to the show's original date of September 2020 and once again when it was pencilled in for March 2021. The singer's stock has only risen in the interlude, though, the success of his self-titled 2020 Mercury winning album masterpiece, Kiwanuka , seeping through the national and international music consciousness to firmly establish him as one of the UK's leading music lights.

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It was a gig over two years in the making but it's fair to say that once the first beats of his opening track, Piano Joint (This Kind of Love), first strummed through the sound system and the throng waiting for him bellowed their approval, all the waiting and lost time was forgotten.

You Ain't the Problem and Rolling followed on quickly, giving Kiwanuka the opportunity to display one of his main and oft-overlooked attributes to go alongside his pitch-perfect voice - his undeniable ability with a guitar in his hand. He and the band accompanying him soon had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

As could be expected of a tour originally designed to go hand-in-hand with the release of Kiwanuka , the majority of the set-list is taken up by songs appearing on it. But nobody in the crowd is complaining. It is a masterful record, combining jaunty and uplifting beats with slow, melodic and soul-filled tracks. Kiwanuka himself may come across as a self-assuming and softly-spoken individual - at once stage telling the crowd there were "so many of you guys, I get nervous" - but give him an instrument and a microphone and he demands the stage.

His prowess with the guitar showcased the full spectrum of his talents, so much so that accompanied by his on-tune band it almost (but not quite) took the attention away from his voice - with the electric beats of Hero and Final Days to his slower, acoustic renditions of Light and Home Again particular highlights. He also had time to fit in a spell on the piano for his touching Solid Ground that rounded off his first dozen songs before the encore.

There are still places for his classics - the aforementioned Home Again had the crowd singing along while Black Man in a White World , arguably one of the songs that brought Kiwanuka more mainstream national attention off his Love&Hate album, gets those watching him clapping in time with the band. And judging by the moves and gut-wrenching bursts of song emanating from the crowd, Cold Heart that helped close out the night will forever be a favourite among those who have ever come across his tunes.

Michael Kiwanuka with his Mercury Prize in 2020 (Getty Images for Hyundai Mercury)

What was hard not to take away is how Kiwanuka and his six-piece band and vocalists make sure every note is played to perfection, every lyric sung to its highest point that you would be hard pressed to do anything but enjoy the beauty of the moment.

His is a voice so soulful and expertly rounded you could almost convince yourself you were listening to the album's original recording, rather than it being sung into a microphone just feet away from you. The tour vowed to take you on a 'psychedelic journey of fuzzy instrumentation', and while it may not transport you completely into the psychedelic land of Sergeant Pepper, the light-show that takes place directly behind Kiwanuka and his band firmly comes a very close second.

It is very much a show not to be missed - and the delay makes it all the more worthwhile. "Manchester, thanks for being here and for waiting two and a half years," Kiwanuka told the Apollo halfway through. But as the final beats played on an uplifting night of music, they were very much thanking him.

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