Michael Kiwanuka – Variety Playhouse, Atlanta

Saturday 15 February 2020

We all want inherent self-confidence. To find a source of providing that feeling is a constant trial and error process. Yet we sometimes see glimmers of hope that will soon fade, but give us the will to keep going. Sometimes you see this quality in other people and it can cause jealousy. But when it matters, it can cause clarity through the understanding of a potential path to this desired existence. Michael Kiwanuka and his band’s recent set at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse on 15 February evoked this type of reaction.

Kiwanuka was on vocals while switching back and forth between electric and acoustic guitar throughout the show, playing one song on keys too.

Kiwanuka dropped his self titled third album, Kiwanuka, in 2019 and this project and sound dominated the set. He opened with potentially his strongest record from the project, “Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love).” Kiwanuka entered the stage as his band soulfully crept in with the short intro for the song as it exists on the album. From the moment Kiwanuka sang his first word to the end of the set, he sounded identical to his recordings, and in some moments even slightly superior. This goes back to the self-confidence he exudes. Kiwanuka knows his pocket and his sound. He never stretches them for self-involved attempts at flair. He exists purely within the composition of his music, his tightly created set, and his bands resonance. This, in turn, makes him of the most selfless master performers in existence. The first example of this was during the first song, as he let one of his arms dangle over the mic stand right behind the mic – almost to cover his own face. It seemed like a coordinated move to introduce the sound rather than himself. But maybe it just felt right. Also, throughout the set whenever Kiwanuka wasn’t singing or speaking to the audience (the few times he did) he took a few steps back from the microphone to play his guitar back within his band.

michael kiwanuka atlanta variety playhouse for euphoria magazine by miki hellerbach

After “Piano Joint” Kiwanuka continued with two more psychedelic songs from the album “You Ain’t The Problem” and “Rolling”. They killed.

“Hello Atlanta” he called. “You ready for some soul music?” He chose his words with ease and intention to switch the vibe and moved right into his purely soul song “One More Night” from his second album Love and Hate.

“I’ve Been Dazed” may have been the highlight of the evening. The song was a show in itself. It started with just Kiwanuka singing and playing guitar then slowly added in all other elements of the band. This progressed all the way up to the sort of “call and response” bridge section starting with the lyrics “time is a healer” that is effectively built into the song. The audience needed no prompt from Kiwanuka himself to join in emphatically. The crowd exploded and was totally locked in through to the end of the piece.

If “I’ve Been Dazed” was the best performance of a song, the next song was potentially the most interesting and affecting. Kiwanuka and the band next played his soulful and poignant “Black Man in White World” track from Love and Hate. The song was lead by a soul clap initiated by Kiwanuka but the composition of the song live had much more psychedelic elements than it does on the recording. This was really useful in linking the two projects’ sounds and keeping the sound of the set in the space where his current music exists. With this third album, Kiwanuka has found his true pocket riding the line between soul and psychedelic rock, sometimes leaning more into one than the other. His current bands set cleanly keeps within this sound with conviction.

michael kiwanuka atlanta variety playhouse for euphoria magazine by miki hellerbach

If there is one criticism to be had, perhaps the second half of the set did not have the same luster as the first. Yet that absolutely did not take away from the experience in the moment – it was just a thought in retrospect. That said, there were some incredible highlights from the second half. A backup soul singer had an explosive Aretha Franklin-esque solo for Kiwanuka’s track “Rule The World”, which maybe received the biggest applause of the evening. Kiwanuka gave a short but affecting spoken intro to his song “Light” about his wanting to retain the original feeling of playing his guitar and making songs in his room, which made his solo acoustic performance of the song hit home even harder.

His one song on keys with the spotlight on him was “Solid Ground” which had the most emotive effect of any song from the set, and gave a truly deserved spotlight of Kiwanuka’s ability as a songwriter.

The potentially unintended lesson from watching Kiwanuka and his band is that an inherent self-confidence can truly come from a selfless commitment to something that you help create, yet has a higher purpose than yourself. For Kiwanuka, this is not a religion – as it can be for many people – though there are some religious elements in his lyrics. While his US tour, unfortunately, is coming to a close if you’re in Europe you’re in luck as he is touring all the way until November.