For better or worse, rock ’n’ roll usually comes with a fair helping of horseshit.
It’s occasionally agreeable, creative and entertaining horseshit. Think Bruce Dickinson sword-fighting a nine-foot-tall zombie on Iron Maiden’s Legacy of the Beast tour. Or Vancouver author and man-about-town Aaron Chapman dressing up like David Bowie’s character in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, to sing “Dancin’ in the Street” at the Bowie Ball with Rawk Lobster a few weeks ago.
There’s often a sense of giddy, innocent fun in assuming costumes, characters, and indulging in fancy stagecraft, elaborate theatricality, and pyrotechnics. From Wagnerian power metal epics inspired by The Lord of the Rings to Vancouver scene vet Bert Man contorting himself, half naked, with a Mexican wrestling mask on as he sings “Ransack,” the subtext of your average rock concert generally reads something like this: “No need to take any of this seriously: let’s have a party! BLAARRRGH!”
No problem with any of that, of course, but there’s also the bad kind of horseshit, like the kind that has people mutilating themselves on stage, starting riots, indulging in hypermasculine, crotch-grabbing assholism, and/ or trying to turn rock concerts into what Mike Watt has called Nuremberg Rallies (or, um, money-grubbing hustles).
And there’s sometimes a really disagreeable scenester horseshit by which audience members want to go to shows to be present where something cool is happening, to be seen on the scene, but don’t actually give a damn about the music, preferring to stand around and jabber to their friends as they get progressively drunker, never really feeling the songs or caring what they might mean or how much they’re ruining things for other people, as long as they’re standing in the aura of celebrity.
All of these forms of horseshit were refreshingly almost completely absent from Michael Kiwanuka’s sold-out show at the Commodore last night.
The 32-year-old Brit, who mixes indie soul with psych-laced folk, was plainly dressed, first in a tan button-up shirt, then in a loose, olive drab T-shirt for the encore. There were no pyrotechnics, theatrics, zombies, severed pigs heads on stakes, or political speeches, and the audience –maybe a bit older than that at the average rock concert, with a median age of perhaps 35–was enthusiastic and respectful. (The exception was the asshole who yelled “Free Bird!” when Kiwanuka briefly started speaking from the stage about his past visits to Vancouver; seriously, dude, what’s wrong with you?).
Some lighting and fog effects aside, there was next-to-no stagecraft, no rock-star posturing, no “I’ll see you at the merch table” hustling, nothing much on hand at all except Kiwanuka and a band of six. This including two female back up vocalists and a guitarist, also black, at the front of the stage, and a white keyboardist, bassist and drummer behind, all of whom simply performed a lengthy set of moving, gripping, beautifully-thought-out songs.
Those included most of Kiwanuka’s second album (Love & Hate, which no doubt is the best known of his albums for the majority of us) and a few songs off his less-known first album, Home Again.
On the latter front, highlight offerings included a stripped down, acoustic take on “Home Again,” during the encore, which he invited the audience to sing along with. The set also drew, of course, on his new release, Kiwanuka, which toned down some of the more extravagant/ decadent moments his back catalogue. (I only bought it last week, and have struggled to get used to the wall-of-sound roller-disco aspect of the lead single, “You Ain’t the Problem", which is also present a bit on “Living in Denial”. Both tunes make me expect Barry Gibb to pop up at some point; presented live, that sense seemed less assertive and became nicely subordinated to the earthy realness of Kiwanuka’s songs.)
Kiwanuka began his set with a shimmering, building, instrumental intro to “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),” which quite aptly took nearly five minutes to arrive at the first lyrics. When Kiwanuka, who tended to close his eyes during songs, tilted his head back and sang “All I want is to talk with you/Turn me on to something true,” it seemed an appropriate entry point into the evening: a simply-stated wish for something real and healing.
While the previous few shows on his tour had omitted “One More Night” from his set, it made a welcome second song, loosening up the audience and giving his band a chance to flex their rock edge. This segued quickly into the aforesaid “You Ain’t The Problem,” followed by “Rolling,” which also follows “You Ain’t the Problem” on Kiwanuka. You know you’ve got a perfect one-two-punch on record when it would feel funny to present the songs live in any other order.
Beginning with a clapalong over a solo vocal, “Black Man in a White World” more than doubled its length (from three and a half minutes on record to nearly eight minutes live) never flagging in energy. Kiwanuka occasionally seemed to sing the chorus through clenched teeth, which I think was mostly about achieving the desired vocal effect, but seemed also to suggest the pain involved in that state.
The Commodore audience, of course, was itself plentifully white last night; my wife has taken some amusement in the idea of white fans singing along to that particular tune, which is among Kiwanuka’s catchiest.
When a band presents itself with such straightforward, “this-is-our-music” restraint, the odd burst of excess tends to stand out. The pulsing strobe lights that lit up “Hero,” one of Kiwanuka’s high points, were timed to explode when the drums hit hardest, bringing the audience to a state of full alertness if that wasn’t the case already.
Mostly, though, there was little drama, beside that contained in the (rich, emotive, powerful and positive) music itself.
At one point a sample played–perhaps the same one that appears on the new record before “Interlude (Loving the People)”?–that put me in mind of the old fella on Dark Side of the Moon telling you he’s “not frightened of dying.”
The female back-up singers also touched on the sorts of ecstasies, that song and elsewhere, that you hear Clare Torry reaching on “The Great Gig in the Sky.” At different times in the evening, their background vocals practically became the point of the songs, and drew very loud cheers.
By the time we arrived at the closing songs–“Cold Little Heart” and “Love & Hate”–the audience members I could see seemed enraptured, rocking back and forth in time to the music, lost in it.
In all honesty, I’m generally more about Bert Man leaping around half-nude in a wrestler’s mask, if you know what I mean, and my aching feet kept trying to tell me Kiwanuka would make more sense in a venue where the bulk of the audience didn’t have to stand. Still it was undeniably a great show.
Charming in a whole other way, opening act Sammy Brue is the youngest person I’ve ever seen onstage at the Commodore; at age 16, perhaps he was the youngest performer since the Dishrags opened for the Clash there, back in 1979? (Aaron Chapman could tell you; I can’t). I asked at the merch table after his set if he’d be coming out to sign his LP, and was told matter-of-factly that he wasn’t allowed, since he’s underage. Far out!
The merch guy, instead, generously abandoned his post to take me to the back door to get Brue to inscribe his first record, I Am Nice, to my wife, which Sammy did, excitedly telling me (when I told him I was reviewing the show) that he had a new album coming out in June. (He’d told the audience previously, and may have even mentioned the fact twice during the short time we chatted, but it seemed less a hustle than a sincere excitement at being 16 years old and having your second record coming out. I mean, really, how cool is that?).
Onstage, Brue had seemed almost uncannily seasoned. He and his bassist–who, with a huge Afro and shirt open, looked in many ways like a much younger, slightly paler version of Michael Kiwanuka–played a tight, potent set of folk songs that suggested at times a singularly swinging tune by Loudon Wainwright III, or at others, an up-tempo, rockin’ Paul Simon.
I gather Brue namechecks Dylan and Woody Guthrie as influences, and while that is super-cool for someone so young to say, I couldn’t hear much of Dylan or Guthrie in his delivery. Also he lacks Dylan’s playful obscurantism and Guthrie’s overt politicking, seeming to prefer more introspective, experienced-based topics. The joint favourite of my wife and I was probably “Paint It Blue,” a neurotic misfit love tune that Brue dedicated to “the weirdos in the audience,” which culminated (I think) in the lyrics “I’m all fucked up/But so are you/I’m in a scene with you/I’ll paint it blue.”
Brue and his bassist ended on a slightly more aggressive note–a song called “Teenage Mayhem,” which had the singer triggering some sort of bass -pedal at his feet for a gut punch worthy of Slayer.
Appropriately fast, fun and catchy, it could easily be given a punk reading. I believe Brue told the crowd (which listened attentively to him, too!) that it would be the subject of a video to be released in early February.
Parents concerned that their children might fall for the next plastic teen idol like Justin Bieber can do their children, themselves and the world of music a favour by pre-emptively buying them Brue’s first album or, when it comes out in June, his next full-length Crash Test Kid.
I mean, Brue’s got teen idol appeal, too, but he can actually fucking write songs, so…