Halfway through Michael Kiwanuka’s gig something great happens: his guitar stops working. I had just been thinking about leaving early. His award-winning mix of ballads and funk tunes just weren’t doing it for me, but this malfunction proved to be a turning point for both of us…
Londoner Kiwanuka has adopted the stylings of the 70’s civil rights movement to highlight the current state of racial politics. These include opening the gig with an audio collage of political soundbites, an eleven-piece soul band complete with brass section, three female backing singers and Kiwanuka himself, channeling Curtis Mayfield with an Afro and Amish beard. It’s a potent mix embodied by his 2016 single Black Man in a White World.
But a band this size needs to be as tight as a gnat’s chuff to avoid melting into an audio soup and, for the first half of the gig, they weren’t nailing it: the Hammond organ was drowned by the brass and the (criminally underused) backing singers were lost behind the guitar effects. This might have been okay had the venue not been fully-seated, thus suppressing the impulse to dance amongst all but the most eager fans. Under those conditions seven minute funk workouts are a little tiresome.
Then, eight songs in, two things happened: first, the brass section filed off stage for a rest, and then Kiwanuka’s guitar failed. There was a delay while the guitar tech tried to fix the problem, during which the quietly affable Kiwanuka apologised for not knowing any jokes. After five minutes of fumbling and failing, (and a gentle heckle: “…try turning it off and on again!”). Kiwanuka simply decided to bypass his effects pedals and plug straight into his vintage amp.
Suddenly it all worked: perhaps to compensate for the delay, the band attacked the last half of the gig. The sound was cleaner, the instruments clearly separated and the backing vocals shone through, reinforcing Kiwanuka’s own smokey voice and there were three or four blistering guitar solos from the guitarist. It was a band transformed. The main set ended with a brilliant piece of theatre, when one by one the band members simply stopped playing and slowly walked off stage, leaving the Hammond player to carry the tune alone before he too stopped. It was simple and beautiful.
Whatever they had gained by then was lost in the wings. Returning for the inevitable encore they were back to their original form. They had turned it on and off again.
For more on Michael Kiwanuka and the remainder of his tour click here.