A Generational Crossroad: Michael Kiwanuka at Bowery Ballroom
    • WEDNESDAY, APRIL 06, 2016

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    A couple months back, we had the chance to see Craig Finn at Lincoln Center. And in our write-up of that show, we discussed how there were two types of concerts: concerts that you attend to hear specific songs and concerts that you attend to hear music more generally. Both types of concerts are great in their own ways. Hearing some of your most beloved songs of all time live for the first time is a transcendent experience as is the pleasure of watching immensely talented musicians just do their thing for an hour or two. But after Michael Kiwanuka's show Monday night at the Bowery Ballroom, it's very much clear that a show can be both.

    Let's flashback to 2012 for a moment. Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka's debut record, is released, and I become an instant fan. Van Morrison's Moondance is one of my favorite albums of all time, and Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" is a top 20 contender for one of the best tracks ever written. And on Home Again tracks like "Tell Me A Tale," "Lasan," "Bones," or the title track, Kiwanuka found the best of Van Morrison, Otis Redding, and a host of other artists from the heyday of 60s/70s soul all while finding space to put a deeply personal imprint on the emotional resonance of his music. Like fellow Brit Blood Orange, Michael Kiwanuka was crafting music explicitly for folks who wanted craft, personality, and spiritual power and drawing from a wide swath of vintage sources for his inspiration.

    Although Home Again is rarely brought up in the discussion of the essential records of the 2010s (honors that are usually reserved for Bon Iver, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, good kid, m.A.A.d city, channel ORANGE, and Hurry Up, We're Dreaming), it should be and it hasn't left my regular listening rotation in the last four years. When I bought my first turntable, Home Again was one of the first records that I bought for it. What's the point of having vinyl if you don't have artists evoking the best of the era that utilized that format for music. And as any of my real life friends/social media followers can attest, I've been pushing his music on friends like a drug for years now.

    Kiwanuka released the first single off his new record, Love & Hate, at the end of last month. "Black Man in a White World" represented both a major change of pace from Kiwanuka while also being a welcome evolution that fits into his "modernity filtered through a vintage lens" aesthetic. Trading in the sweeping strings and baroque soul of Home Again for the heroin jazz of Gil Scott-Heron and Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis (with a hint of the darker 70s soul of Bill Withers), the song found Kiwanuka leaving the lushness of the 60s for the paranoia and turbulence of the 70s, and Monday at the Bowery, the new material proved that his upcoming sophomore record should be one of the purest delights of the year.

    Circling back to the idea of a "music" show" vs. a "song" show, Kiwanuka was able to deliver both. Although Kiwanuka is still making a name for himself here in the states, the sold out Bowery crowd (myself included) was returning every line. Kiwanuka seemed almost taken aback by the crowd's (remarkably in-tune) delivery and was eating up the energy we were sending his way. Once you've heard "Home Again" or "Tell Me A Tale" or "I'm Getting Ready" a couple of times, they worm their way into your heart like a song you've been hearing since childhood. They fit like well-worn gloves, and that's something I mean as the highest compliment.

    But it was the new material that proved to be the most exciting element of the evening. I wasn't sure if "Black Man In A White World" was going to be the guiding element of Kiwanuka's new tunes or an exception on a record that sounds more like his first. It was decidedly the former. The show began with Kiwanuka laying down a spacey, John McLaughlin-esque guitar solo and minus the material from the first record (though "Tell Me A Tale" was remixed into a jammier, jazzier number than the first time I heard it live at Bonnaroo in 2012), the evening felt like a freeform jazz jam from a smoke-filled 70s club. And as somebody who thinks that records like Live Evil and Bitches Brew are among the greatest ever recorded, it's clearly a good thing.

    As great as Kiwanuka's records are, they can't compare to his live shows. These shows were great when Kiwanuka was only drawing from his 60s soul forebears, but with the addition of the new, spacier/more intricate jazz material, it's only gotten better. Michael Kiwanuka is situated at the crossroad of the best of contemporary and classic music, and we aren't sure how any show is going to top this for the near future.

    © 2020 Baeble Media. All rights reserved.