Miguel Pimental lacks the charisma of a natural-born superstar and doesn’t have the easy stage presence of a well-groomed professional entertainer to fall back on. But few artists to emerge this decade sing or write about the intricate negotiations of sex with as much soul and wit, and dude’s physique falls somewhere between “underwear model” and “superhero action figure.”
So even during the lulls at Saturday night’s State Theatre show, which was relocated from First Avenue, the material itself never dipped in quality, the singer reliably exuded industrial-strength pheromones, and we had the opportunity to watch the process of a young performer striving to translate his unique talent into a public presence on a scale that matches his considerable ambition.
Miguel came out shirtless beneath a white fringed jacket, in tight white pants. His microphone stand was slathered in matching white fringe, and his four-piece band (and DJ) also wore white. A snippet of “A Beautiful Exit,” which would resurface a few songs later, set the tone, its warning that “we’re gonna die young” creating a subtle undertow of erotic doom. The breathless anticipation of “The Thrill” segued neatly into “Sure Thing,” though that love song, originally recorded as a killer slow burn, was manhandled live into something heavier and flashier — and less effective.
A sexistential crisis afflicts every brainy pop hunk once he’s found enough answers to “What makes you come?” and starts wondering “What do orgasms mean?” Miguel has entered that stage on his third and most recent album, Wildheart, and his set next turned to two of his less successful explorations into new conceptual territory. “...Goingtohell” conflates sex and religion a bit too patly, while “Hollywood Dreams” imagines Los Angeles as a place where beautiful people writhe ecstatically through short lives of hedonist misery — a theme surely familiar to viewers of either cautionary hair-metal videos or the first season of Angel.
The screen behind Miguel, which had previously displayed the vasty deeps of space and similar cosmic patterns, was by now showing digitized kaleidoscope patterns that you didn’t have to have too dirty a mind to see as vaginal. Miguel then repeatedly chanted, “If you’re a good girl, you’re a good fucking girl, let me hear you say yeah,” and in response “yeah” was often said and, presumably, heard. The band danced along with goofy charm to Fetty Wap’s “My Way” while the singer changed outfits offstage. He returned in a black sleeveless-T that concealed his almost cartoonishly sick abs for a cruel but thankfully brief spell. Confirmation of good fucking girl status was again sought, and, again, received.
Once we all knew who we were, it was time for Miguel to get nasty with “The Valley,” which invites a lover to play-act porn scenarios with the singer. After reclaiming the arousing power of smutty anatomical monosyllables (“tits, clit, slit”), Miguel strapped on a guitar and chunked out some chords for the equally filthy and gloriously pathetic, “Pussy Is Mine,” a lovelorn cuckold’s plea for his baby to lie to him. He let us all sing the chorus.
Just as Miguel was hitting his groove though, he decided to inspire us. “What the fuck is normal?” he asked, and with the observation “Normality is subjective now,” he kicked off an extended lecture on being yourself, quoting Funkadelic’s “Free your mind and your ass will follow” for the first of three times that night. The slowly building ballad that followed, “Leaves,” is his best song about California — it blames a busted relationship on how L.A.’s lack of seasons make it hard to notice change — and Miguel did the song proud.
But then it was time for another speech. Miguel recounted the confusion he felt growing up as the child of an African-American mother and a Mexican-American father and being asked to choose his race on a standardized test at school. He checked the “other” box, he proclaimed proudly. The self-affirmation was earnest but felt a little teen-poppy, and it killed the momentum and undercut the song that followed, “What’s Normal Anyway?,” which was accompanied by a montage of photos of Miguel fans of every race.
Miguel picked up the tempo with a pair of new songs: the cynical “DEAL” and the blithe “Waves.” And after a quick spin through the early single “All I Want Is You,” the night got even better with “Do You …” which starts by asking “Do you like drugs?,” admits “me too,” playfully suggests other potentially shared and mostly innocent interests, and finally flips the question into a promise to “do you like drugs tonight.” Miguel then rapped along briefly to Tupac’s “I Get Around” (why not?) before hard-selling the up-front proposition “Quickie.”
Miguel’s set closed with the swelling “Face the Sun,” with his guitarist taking the spotlight solo that’s tellingly entrusted to Lenny Kravitz on Wildheart. Throughout the night, such arena rock dreams hobbled Miguel’s performance style — they indicate his ambition to bust out of R&B rather than feeling like a logical next stage in his artistic development. And adopting a forceful stage presence doesn’t jibe easily with the vocal style of a singer who luxuriates in his own beauty, bathing in an almost autoerotic soft focus that lures you in.
The encore raised few such doubts, though, showing at last what Miguel was capable of. He began with his latest single, “Coffee,” one of the year's best songs. It's a heavy-breathing song about talking and fucking all through the night, and waking the next morning to either share “coffee” (the radio edit) or keep “fucking” (as the dirty version has it).
A bit of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” preceded “How Many Drinks?” In the song, Miguel asks a woman at the bar how many drinks he'll have to buy before she goes home with him — not to determine how much he needs to lower her inhibitions (what kind of a sleaze do you take him for?), but out of impatience with the club-life rituals that men and women cling to even when they’d both rather get down to business.
The subtlety of the lyrics was lost in the hard rock stomp that Miguel bounded around onstage, but it soundtracked Miguel’s biggest triumph of the night, as he plunged into the pit, then slowly worked his way down the aisle of the State and up into the balcony, leaving gasping ladies and flashing phones in his wake.
Miguel ended the night with an extended take on “Adorn,” his biggest and best hit, a burbling and percolating profession of desire and commitment that also falls within his sweet spot as a performer. Miguel may speechify about staying true to your own sense of self, but he's still trying on new identities. It will be interesting to see which self he eventually decides to be.
Critic’s bias: As you may have heard, Miguel was scheduled to perform at First Avenue, but Wednesday’s ceiling collapse required the show to relocate around the corner. Now, the State Theater is a gorgeous venue, and since it has a greater capacity than First Ave, the move allowed a few extra folks to attend who’d been shut out of the previously sold-out show. But the State Theater has seats. Seats limit your dance options. And seats fix you to a specific location. A less physically constrained crowd throbbing toward the stage would have been fun to watch.
Random notebook dump: The openers, Dorothy, were the sort of generic L.A. blues-metal band you’d expect to run across in a bar scene from a lousy ‘80s movie, with one (at least one) song about cocaine and another (at least another) about whiskey. Sadly, I have a nagging suspicion that Miguel brought ‘em along to prove his cred as a rock fan. Sadlier, I have a nagging suspicion that he actually he digs them
The crowd: About as racially integrated a crowd — with as many racially integrated couples — as you’ll run across at a Minneapolis show, which jibed nicely with Miguel’s post-racial rhetoric. There were also plenty of decked out women in pairs or in groups as keyed up as the attendees of a Magic Mike screening.
Overheard in the crowd: “Ugh, did you see her ass?” “Hey, not everybody can have an ass like you.” “I work hard for this ass. I do squats.” “She must be doing, like, reverse squats.”
A Beautiful Exit
...Goingtohell/ A Beautiful Exit (reprise)
Girls Like You
My Way (Fetty Wap track)/ GFG (reprise)
Pussy Is Mine
What’s Normal Anyway
All I Want Is You
I Get Around (Tupac track)
Face the Sun
Swimming Pools (Drank) (Kendrick Lamar track)/ How Many Drinks?