Janelle Monáe at Skyway Theatre, 10/22/13
Skyway Theatre, Minneapolis
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
The word "transcendent" gets thrown around much too often these days, but in the case of Janelle Monáe, it actually fits. What it should mean is something more than just a good performance, or even a great one. It should reach out beyond a performer in front of a room full of people and become something other than itself. And on Tuesday night at the Skyway, Monáe seemed bent on doing just that, by sheer force of will and her own raw talents.
She drove that point home when she paused to introduce the song "Cold War," ever so briefly breaking down the wall of her intricately scripted show. "Regardless of your color, of your heritage, of your religion, of who you love," Monáe explained, her voice almost quivering, "you deserve compassion. You deserve to be respected."
After that, the song -- and with it, the show -- became something more than just a catchphrase, more than an anthem or an excuse to dance. When Monáe just about tore the house down in the moments that followed, it felt, however briefly, like she could change the world by doing it.
That's a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but not that much of one. After all, there are certain people who have "it," and Monáe is surely one of them. She has the unmistakable sort of charisma that some folks just seem to be blessed with -- a mix of talent and, yes, physical beauty that fit together in almost perfect harmony. When she sang, her lips bright red and teeth glowing white, she looked to be smiling, even when she wasn't. It's no wonder she portrays herself as an otherworldly being.
Monáe's voice, for that matter, is big, even theatrical, in its range and power, but what's equally impressive is that she matches it with the energy of her delivery. For pretty well the entirety of her 100-minute set last night, she was in constant motion, dancing and shimmying along with her backup singers, running in place, and leading her five-piece band as though she were conducting them. One can only imagine the workout routine she must have to maintain to make it all happen. (Not everything can come easily, after all.)
To that end, the show's plot line, with Monáe (the "Electric Lady") getting wheeled out in a straightjacket and her band mates all dressed in doctor's lab coats, served a useful purpose, rather than being a potentially distracting pretense. Basically, it provided some needed set breaks, not only for costume changes but also for the audience to catch its breath. Even after the initial burst of "Givin' 'Em What They Love" and "Dance Apocalyptic" that kicked off the set, the room had hit a fever pitch.
The psychiatric ward storyline also gave Monáe some extra license to indulge herself along the way, most notably when she took a page out of James Brown's book and was draped with a cape by one of her stage hands during "Tightrope." As the song built and built to its peak, then came crashing to the finish in a swirl of shredded guitar, she added her own touch to the old bit, thrusting her hips to each crash of the drums and then twirling in place.
Throughout it all, it was hard not to think about great R&B performers of the past -- and not just because she threw in covers of Michael Jackson (well, the Jackson 5, but just the same) and Prince. And, oh, wouldn't you know it, the Purple One himself was there, sitting in the balcony with a pair of sunglasses on. On more than occasion, he could be seen giving standing ovations, and at one point, he even waved his cane (!) over his head.
But then that was really just icing on the cake. After Monáe had feigned a collapse on stage so her band could revive her, after she'd made the audience crouch low to the ground, after the room had exploded with confetti, she jumped out into the crowd and crawled out into the room, reaching to grasp hold of her fans' hands.
You didn't need Prince to tell you that it was good, and Monáe didn't need him to pull it off. What more can you say?
Critic's Bias: Probably the best show I've seen this year -- and it was at the Skyway!
The Crowd: Into it.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Where's Miguel?!"
Random Notebook Dump: The lead-up to the show felt a little bit chaotic, with locals Strange Names only getting announced as openers the day before and DJ Jake Rudh apparently being asked to DJ only hours beforehand. Fortunately, the show itself seemed to come off without a hitch.
2.0 Introduction to Palace of the Dogs
Suite IV Overture
Givin' 'Em What They Love
I Want You Back
Let's Go Crazy
What an Experience
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