"Are you ready for some soul music, folks?" Michael Kiwanuka asked toward the start of his Monday night show in St. Paul. The packed house at the Palace Theatre immediately made clear that yes, we were ready for whatever he had in store.
After Thee Oh Sees’ "Sticky Hulks" played the band out, Kiwanuka strolled onstage with the satisfied, grateful smile of a musician who’d sold out a 2,500 capacity theater 4,000 miles from his London home. He was flanked by a cracking four-piece band and two vocalists who added rich, soaring backup throughout the 100-minute set.
Kiwanuka's songs often present both sides of an emotional or social dichotomy: love and hate, companionship and loneliness, acceptance and rejection, confidence and failure. And his music illuminates the strength, healing, and joy that comes from choosing the former while dismissing the bleak temptations of the latter.
Kiwanuka and his band often took their time reaching their sentimental musical destinations, stretching out their impassioned songs with exploratory interludes that touched on Stax soul swing, Band of Gypsys funk, and Summer of Love psych-rock.
But at the core of Kiwanuka's songs was a message of hope, unity, understanding, and togetherness. "Take me out of myself again/Help me lose control/Show me love, show me happiness/I can't do this on my own" Kiwanuka sang on "Rule the World," which he started out solo before the band joined him on cue, following his desperate admission that he couldn't do it all by himself.
"Black Man in a White World" voices the frustrations of an artist trying to find his way in a society that doesn’t accept him, but as Kiwanuka played the song to a mostly white audience that embraced him, it took on an air of optimism, inspiring us to make the world a more tolerant place. "Hero" was filled with an added significance when Kiwanuka acknowledged that February is Black History Month in the U.S., and he was celebrating by dedicating the song to Fred Hampton, the Black Panther chairman and founder of the Rainbow Coalition, killed by Chicago police at the age of 21.
"The Final Frame," a tender ode to a person or a time that is long gone but still dearly remembered, featured a scorching guitar solo by Kiwanuka, who switched between acoustic and electric throughout the set. "Final Days" was a somber plea to make the most of your time here, and a smoldering version of "Solid Ground" brought the main set to an elegant close, with Kiwanuka playing keys as he sang about finding a place where you feel comfortable—which he and his band clearly did at the Palace.
The generous encore started with Kiwanuka taking a quick bow, still smiling at the warm reception he received. "Hard To Say Goodbye" featured an exploratory, psych-drenched intro, with the song (like many of Kiwanuka's numbers) managing to find its way into your heart even if it took a long, wayward way to arrive there.
"I've been to Minnesota a few times before, but this is my first time playing St. Paul, and it's been memorable. Thank you," Kiwanuka said, before performing one of the oldest songs of the night, "Home Again," followed by his biggest hit, "Cold Little Heart." "Love & Hate" gloriously ended the evening, with Kiwanuka offering up one final soulful prayer of hope and salvation to whoever needed it. I know I did.
Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)(Intro)
Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)
One More Night
You Ain't the Problem
Black Man in a White World
Rule the World
Tell Me a Tale
The Final Frame
Hard to Say Goodbye
Cold Little Heart
Love & Hate