Review: Michael Kiwanuka at the O2 Academy

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is enthralled by the variety of musical influences in Kiwanuka’s endearing set

Michael Kiwanuka

For a musician signed to Communion, a label with definite folky origins, Michael Kiwanuka’s opening at Oxford’s O2 Academy is undeniably spacey. ‘Cold Little Heart’ begins with just the keys player onstage. The chords he plays are straightforward, but a close ear to delay and reverberations ensures these sounds bounce around the room in an oddly psychedelic manner.

When Kiwanuka leads the rest of the sixpiece band on, they seamlessly join in on this meandering instrumental, the opening to the eight minute–long track. The track soon steadies into a bluesy groove. It’s a startling opener on record, too, particularly since it follows an album made of tracks of just three or four minutes. 2012’s Home Again was a well-received debut of catchy, well thought-out melodies which established Kiwanuka as ‘one to watch’ on the North London scene. July’s Love and Hate reached number one, a serious sign of public recognition for the Muswell Hill-born artist who worked as a session guitarist before taking centre stage. The “critics” were impressed too—Love and Hate was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize this year, no small feat when set next to musicians including David Bowie, Radiohead and 2016’s winner, Skepta.

Live, the reworkings of album tracks, stretched-out and heavy on instrumentals, show Kiwanuka as a talented guitarist. On record his skilful playing is too often lost underneath swaying backing vocalists and thundering drums. In front of a live audience, stretching out across the strings of his guitar with a slide, Kiwanuka does not play as if at ease. He isn’t one to make his skirmishes up and down the guitar’s neck look heartless. Instead, he pulls faces, and wears a furrowed brow all evening. It’s rare to see a performer putting so much soul into every single note.

It is in his voice that his soulfulness is most apparent. While he may play with bluegrass guitar techniques, rock ‘n’ roll style riffs, and the emotional sentimentality of folk, the notes Kiwanuka strains out of his throat are of a raspy charm. Like the gruffness of the voice of label buddy Nathaniel Rateliff, the tone of these notes comes from somewhere inside Kiwanuka you can only imagine him finding whilst practising alone in a dark room.

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His lyrics come from the same place. In ‘Rule the World’, he sings “I don’t understand the game/ Or who I’m meant to be/ It’s driving me insane/ The way you’re playing me”. On paper these sound twee, but as his voice lilts above heavy keys and guitar effects Jeff Buckley would be proud of, the texture suddenly thins, leaving these heart wrenching lyrics to waver, poignantly, alone in the air.

Imperatively his voice can be gentle, too. ‘The Final Frame’ is a smooth number in triple time which sees Kiwanuka rein in the huskiness of his voice, leaving a rare delicacy. ‘Tell Me a Tale’ was once Kiwanuka’s signature track, played steadily with the warmth with which it first appeared on the Tell Me a Tale EP in 2011. Now, with the accomplishment of his richer second album, he plays it as a freewheeling jazz number. The drummer plays with brushes and a second percussionist rustles around his kit and the side of the stage.

As a frontman, Kiwanuka is appreciative of his audience, but says little more than “thank you” between each song. Until, that is, he announces the last song of the night, to an array of sounds of disappointment from the crowd. “There’s a club night in here afterwards—they want us out”, Kiwanuka explains, one of the few things he can get out in breaths between his brooding song lyrics, “it’s Calvin Harris after us.”