Arts and Culture

Michael Kiwanuka gig review: ‘Still as soulful as ever’

Some people have waited almost three years to see Michael Kiwanuka at the Manchester O2 Apollo – as demonstrated by the man that nearly pushed me over running to get the front barrier and the “I love you Michael” that greeted him within a few minutes of taking the stage. 

The North London soul singer is finally on the road with his 2020 Mercury prize-winning album Kiwanuka, a thoughtful meditation on his own identity and the world around him.  

He was supported by Southampton quartet Wild Front – a tight but forgettable indie group – and Tawia, a London-based alt-soul singer. Her set was delightfully eclectic and experimental – one minute she’s playing a midi saxophone, the next minute she’s performing spoken word – but this does not detract from her undeniable talent as a singer. She’s definitely one to watch out for. 

Kiwanuka began his sold-out show with the slow-building Piano Joint, followed by a favourite from his 2016 Love and Hate album, One More Night. It’s clear from the start: Kiwanuka’s voice is among the best in the industry – expressive, powerful and note-perfect. 

He was joined on stage by a six-piece band and a giant mirror ball. Unlike the showy centrepiece, there is something modest and unassuming about Kiwanuka. He is a gentle presence on stage, and not one for chatting in between songs, but that does not mean he doesn’t own the stage or connect with the audience, which included a diverse mix of young and old.

One of the songs that particularly got them going was the politically-charged Black Man in a White World. Their excitement was evident in the out-of-time clapping that accompanied the acapella beginning of the song. But Kiwanuka is a master of his craft and this did not phase him one bit.

Towards the end of the set he played Final Days, a much more contemporary track with subtle elements of breakbeat, which has also recently been remixed by Bonobo. This came in contrast with his final song before the encore, the more stripped-back Solid Ground, where he moved to the piano, dramatically lit by a single beam of light from above. 

Other highlights included the afrobeat-infused You Aint the Problem and another song that explores racial injustice, Hero. The lyrics of the song ask: Am I the hero? To the audience in the sold-out Apollo, he definitely was. 

This performance may have been a long-time coming but it did not disappoint. Unlike his earlier offerings, his latest work dips into the realms of guitar-driven gospel rock and seventies psychedelia. But as he expands his range of influences, Kiwanuka is still as soulful as ever. 

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