After a traumatic week for music fans, Michael Kiwanuka brought a soulful sense of healing to a sold-out First Avenue on Friday night.
Backed by a five-piece band, the North London singer/songwriter delivered a stirring 90-minute set that celebrated the courageous vulnerability of those who choose love over hate, and also paid a touching tribute to Prince.
Kiwanuka was scheduled to play the Cedar Cultural Center back in December, but he had to cancel his entire U.S. tour due to vocal issues stemming from tonsillitis. His star in the States has risen dramatically in the meantime, after his new tune, “Cold Little Heart,” served as the theme song for the acclaimed HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. Kiwanuka opened with a simmering, 10-minute version of his biggest hit that featured an extended bluesy intro while the band took to the stage around him.
A funky, keys-laden “One More Night” got the packed house grooving, but it was Kiwanuka’s more introspective, insightful numbers (including nine of the ten tracks from Love & Hate) that made the show so special. “Falling” elegantly captures the wicked hold an ex-lover retains over your heart long after misusing it, while “I’ll Never Love” expresses the hopeless isolation of being too lost in your own dark thoughts to let anyone close to you, with lines like “I’ll never need somebody/ Leave me alone/ A worried mind in the violence will be my guide.”
Kiwanuka’s performance of “Black Man in a White World” early in the set was one of the bravest, most defiant, most moving moments a Twin Cities audience will likely see this year. Kiwanuka got the entire predominantly white crowd to clap along throughout the incisive song, creating a powerful sense of solidarity, binding the band with the audience in a way that rarely happens so profoundly at a rock show.
A trio of songs from Kiwanuka’s debut album, Home Again, anchored the middle section of the set. The stripped-down, folky versions of “I’m Getting Ready,” “Home Again,” and “Rest” brought to mind his first performance in Minneapolis at the Fine Line back in 2012. But Kiwanuka has grown even more assured as a performer since then, adding depth and resonance to those numbers.
There were moments when the lack of the gospel-style backing vocalists featured on the studio versions were noticeable (especially “Cold Little Heart,” “Rule the World” and “Father’s Child”), but Kiwanuka and his band filled in the gaps with lush arrangements and extended jams reminiscent of Band of Gypsys, B.B. King, and Curtis Mayfield.
The main set ended with a potent trio of new numbers. “Rule the World” had a Delta blues kick, and “The Final Frame” featured fiery, exploratory solos from Kiwanuka and his fellow guitarist -- their deft interplay had driven most of the songs forward throughout the night. Following the stirring set closer, “Father’s Child,” Kiwanuka ceded the stage to his band, and their extended moody coda added to the song's haunted poignancy.
After returning for the encore, Kiwanuka praised the club and went on to dedicate his emotional cover of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April” to “one of the greatest musicians who ever lived.” During the final verse, Kiwanuka even changed the lyrics to “Maybe one day, we’ll see our Prince again,” which only made the wistful sentiments of the song resonate that much more with a crowd – and a city – that is still mourning his loss.
The performance concluded with a stunning rendition of “Love & Hate,” with the lyrics “Standing now/ Calling all the people here to see the show” bringing to mind the young music fans who tragically lost their lives in Manchester simply because they went to a concert. But there was plenty of hope to Kiwanuka’s final number, with his impassioned plea “I need something, give me something wonderful” hitting home in the heavy hearts of the packed house. Music will always have the ability to take you somewhere special when you let it, and it will always be there for you when you need it most.
Critic’s bias: Love & Hate was one of my favorite albums of 2016, and I couldn’t wait to hear these songs live. While the cancellation of the original Cedar show made the wait that much longer, and demand forced a move to the bigger Mainroom, this was still as warm and moving as I’d hoped it would be.
The crowd: A rare all-ages show at First Ave (a necessity since the show was moved from the Cedar), and the main floor was mostly filled with fans, young and old, who were there to listen. But between the non-stop chatter from the balcony and the doom metal of Pallbearer bleeding in from next door at the Entry, a lot of superfluous noise drowned out the quieter moments of the show.
Cold Little Heart
One More Night
Black Man In A White World
I’ll Never Love
I’m Getting Ready
Rule The World
The Final Frame
Sometimes It Snows In April (Prince cover)
Love & Hate