Kiwanuka Spreads the Love All Around

I’ve never walked into the Commodore to see groups of people chilling out on the floor, festival-style.  This was the scene on October 4 for Michael Kiwanuka. It wasn’t at all shocking, really, considering the laidback ease of Kiwanuka’s music and, logically, his fan-base.

But of course, there’s always one rebel in the crowd that has to buck the trend. That night, it was Dave; I don’t actually know his name, let’s just go with “Dave”. Dave was out with friends and was well on his way to accomplishing his mission of getting wrecked. During Nathaniel Rateliff’s opening set, Dave had (according to my new buddy Blair – actual name) shouted “This is [expletive] chick music!” in rowdy disgust. Now, with our headliner due any second, Dave was being tended to by a blessed lady friend by the left bar, but to no avail. “Stay with the group! Are you gonna kill Shane?!” Dave shouted. Look out, Shane, there appears to be someone other than Dave you need to worry about. There was a crisis going on that only Dave knew about, apparently. He then proceeded to drop/toss his drink on the floor. Oopsy-daisy. It happens. And when it happens, Security starts to eyeball you. Thankfully, this is the point where Dave decided to get it together, chill out, and shut up.

Michael Kiwanuka strolled out with his band and started things with “Out of Control”, which I like to think he played for Dave. If music can soothe the savage drunk, then this tune may very well have made him lie down on his back and bat his bloodshot eyes for a belly rub. Kiwanuka’s soulful voice was all systems go – rich, gentle and, backed by a tight band, perfect walk-along music for a thoughtful stroll on a hot sidewalk on a summer day.

Following the opening song, Michael welcomed us to the evening, at which point I noticed this guy had an accent – he’s a Brit, he is! A glance at his bio lets you know how, as with most of us, he grew up with music, liking bands “like Nirvana, Radiohead, Offspring and Blur, but it was only when he discovered that Jimi Hendrix was black that he understood he had a place playing rock guitar”. The North London native’s horizons would later expand to Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Terry Callier, and others. Based on the developed, mature sound of his debut album – this year’s Home Again, which hit high on dozens of charts across the world – it is the latter group with which Kiwanuka found true common ground.

Kiwanuka and his band’s performance of “Tell Me A Tale” was damn fine; the kind of good that makes you shake your head in disbelief. There are both drummer and percussionist in the band, which combine to make a full, complementary base of beats, beats that help turn Kiwanuka’s extended forays into jams that break down inhibitions and make you dance all funky-like without a care in the world. The adventurous, prancing keys – of which Ray Manzarek would surely approve – helped bolster the already full band sound.

“Bones” was a song that made me wish I’d brought a date. Dozens of swaying pairs were way ahead of me, spread all throughout the Commodore, in loving embraces. This is one of those sweet, cheek-to-cheek numbers where if you just smile, mouth the words the whole way through, and don’t step on her toes, you’re in. Kiwanuka balanced his plush, thick numbers with more stripped down pieces, such as the reassuring “Home Again”. The variety in style and sound kept things fresh, interesting, and unequivocally bursting with all sorts of warm, lovely feeling. Expect a small spike in the Vancouver birthrate in early July 2013.

There’s somewhat of a retro/soul/revival movement going on at the moment, and while I’ve found that a remarkable number of these groups are above average, the X factor within this scene is authenticity. There are those who try to pull off the look and sound, and fail. Then there are those who aim for that same look and sound, and hit it bang on. And then there are artists like Michael Kiwanuka, who truly don’t appear to be reaching at all. While some of the genuineness of his sound comes from the apparent effortlessness with which he achieves it, most of it is due to the fact that he is, quite simply and purely, genuine.