Janelle Monae plays for small crowd... and Prince

Janelle Monae plays for small crowd... and Prince
Photos by Steve Cohen

Poor Prince. He can't go anywhere these days without a string of tweets popping up and outing his whereabouts. (Including, um, ours.) About 20 minutes before Janelle Monae started her set last night at the Varsity, a pair of security guards quickly ushered Prince out of a white limo and through a side door of the theater, bringing him upstairs into the roped-off new balcony of the venue to sit a small candle-lit table.

gimme_noise Prince just rolled into the Varsity for Janelle Monae. She goes on in 10, still plenty of room here.

smallest_bones @gimme_noise being in the same place as Prince makes me feel ridiculously cool.

solace @gimme_noise I think he overheard us talking smack about "Cause & Effect", lol

thomasjcollins Nice to see Prince show up at The Varsity but it's poor form for him to not check in on Foursquare.

JayGabler Before Twitter was invented, I'll bet even Prince himself didn't know where he was sometimes.

But enough about His Purpleness -- we were there for Monae. Her set was a performance of her new concept album, The ArchAndroid, from start to finish, which gave the night an odd flow but was ultimately bombastic and amazing. The first half of her set was a bit anti-climactic; there were a few awkward pauses between songs as the band waited for some video footage to get cued up, and a few of the slower songs zipped by with a rushed feel, but the second half of the set was everything I had remembered about seeing her in Austin last year.

Janelle Monae plays for small crowd... and Prince
Janelle Monae plays for small crowd... and Prince
Photos by Steve Cohen

The whole first part of the set was a buildup to her new single, and it seemed like Monae didn't really get comfortable or break loose until the bass beat of "Tightrope" started booming from behind her. It could have been nerves (um, hello, PRINCE WAS WATCHING) or the disappointment in a somewhat small crowd (the venue was only about half full), but for whatever reason Monae seemed hesitant and almost disinterested in her own show at first. But everything exploded during "Tightrope," Monae breaking into a full-body herky jerky dance and beaming as she belted out the hook of the song.

Most of the crowd seemed familiar with Monae's singles already, despite the fact that they've only been out a few weeks, and I was especially surprised to see a sizeable chunk of the audience singing along word-for-word to "Cold War." With even the smallest amount of radio support, it seems like Monae could draw a much larger crowd than the one that turned out last night -- her songs are catchy, her energy is contagious, and her style and the conceptual nature of her stage show are tailor-made for large stages and audiences.

The full Monae package is really spectacular. In the moments when she was on, she was ON, dropping to her knees in a James Brown-style cape to sing her guts out, parading out robotically with assymetrical sunglasses or contorted metal headresses and then breaking into maniacal dances, staring hypnotically toward the ceiling like she was about to be beamed up to the mother ship. Her band was locked in behind her every step of the way, and even though the sound wasn't mixed perfectly (her vocals were boomy, and the drums were way too loud), the overall impact of the band was grandiose, a cacophony of screaming guitars and sped-up dance beats. They even took a moment to slow things down so that the keyboard player could play the second half of Debussy's "Clair de Lune," mixing a beautiful impressionist piano piece into the dizzying array of R&B, funk, soul, pop, disco, and cyborg-inspired syncopations.

An hour and 15 minutes later, the band was spent, Monae was sweaty, and the crowd was dazed. Even after a slow start, Monae has proven herself once again to be an incomporable performer and a forward-thinking artist -- let's just hope the Twin Cities has enough sense to come out to support her the next time her tornado rips through town.

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