Michael Kiwanuka review – soul's troubled man speaks truth to power

02 Academy, Birmingham
The two-time Brit nominee rejects a brash victory lap in favour of a deep dive into his socially conscious hit album

After two Brit award nominations and the critical rapture that greeted Michael Kiwanuka’s third album – Kiwanuka, which reached No 2 in November – this should be the 32-year-old singer-songwriter’s victory lap. Not a bit of it. He shuffles on in a low-key denim jacket and doesn’t say a word. Heavy piano chords and two outstanding backing vocalists ease into downbeat opener Piano Joint, as a mournful-sounding singer pleads for personal connection: “All I want is to talk to you. Turn me on to something true.”

Although the gig is beautifully lit – with beams of light emitting from a giant disco ball – it isn’t showbiz. The London-born son of Ugandan immigrants is connecting with something deeper: soulful music steeped in self-doubt, global problems, emotional agony and fleeting glimpses of ecstasy. For a moment, though, his low-key approach (barely a “thank you, ladies and gentlemen” all night) and gentler sounds are met with too much audience chatter and people hissing “Sssssshhh”. However, as calm descends, you realise that people are just stood, rapt, hushed by the powerful beauty of his music.

A superb six-piece band (including the two singers) mesmerically recreate album highlights. Although there are echoes of Bill Withers and Trouble Man-era Marvin Gaye, it’s not overburdened by nostalgia. Black Man in a White World taps into timeless African spirituals and Kiwanuka’s experiences in the modern music industry, finding a powerful visual illustration in the smattering of black faces in a mostly white audience.

Mesmeric … Michael Kiwanuka.
Mesmeric … Michael Kiwanuka. Photograph: Katja Ogrin/Redferns

Kiwanuka straps on an electric guitar for the uptempo You Ain’t the Problem and an acoustic one for Hero, but the best moments land knockout punches through velvet gloves. I’ve Been Dazed soars with its uplifting “time is the healer” coda. Final Days ponders the end of the world with symphonic gospel. Home Again is minimalist, raw and hurting. Cold Little Heart delivers six minutes of breathtaking melancholy before Love and Hate becomes an extended mantra which artist and audience keep going. Kiwanuka doesn’t punch the air, but deep down he must be having the time of his life.

• At O2 Guildhall, Southampton, 2 March. Then at 02 Academy, Bournemouth, 3 March. Then touring.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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