‘Even if we are miles apart.’
These are the echoing last words of Michael Kiwanuka’s ‘Light.’ They’ve taken on new meaning with all that we’ve been through since its release at the end of 2019, which made finally getting to hear them from the man himself even more liberating.
It’s been a long time coming. He was originally set to embark on a UK tour two years ago in support of his eponymous third album, and while that obviously didn’t go to plan, the wait has proven a valuable asset, giving listeners time to fully absorb the record, and allowing him space to further develop its tunes with his band, imbuing each song with an earned maturity. By the time he took the stage in Brighton on May 20th, Kiwanuka had already become something of a modern classic for those in attendance.
Anticipation hung heavy in the air as ‘Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)’ began. This was exactly the occasion that it was written for; the undulating kick drum gave a sense of gravity and deliberation to the start of the set, sounding as the approaching footsteps of the as yet absent singer-songwriter. Despite the grand entrance, Kiwanuka appeared as humble as ever, waving gleefully as he emerged from the wings to rapturous applause. His audience’s admiration only became more palpable as he reached the microphone, at which point every soul in the room fell into a hushed silence, heeding his every syllable.
Something that struck me from the moment the first note rang out was the sound. Where gigs often overcompensate on the volume front, here everything was crystal clear – yet it still sat at a comfortable level, loud enough to fill the venue but not overwhelm. For an artist as introspective as this, this was exactly the right choice.
That sound quality extended well beyond ‘Piano Joint,’ continuing to impress as the band exploded into an enormous rendition of ‘One More Night.’ While the recorded track features a more restrained atmosphere, here everything was turned up to eleven, with fuzzy lines from guitarist Michael Jablonka and an invigorating tempo increase bringing an unexpected edge. This was the first moment in the set that had the whole room moving, but it was far from the last. Soon the trifecta of ‘You Ain’t The Problem,’ ‘Rolling’ and ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ shook the building, the latter transforming The Brighton Centre into a church as it delivered a long-awaited gospel singalong.
Elsewhere Kiwanuka’s plentiful influences bled through. ‘Rule The World’ fused Bond and Floyd, culminating in a climactic vocal solo à la ‘The Great Gig In The Sky,’ while a sprinkling of Home Again tracks painted him as a modern-day Terry Callier. An impressive lighting installation reflected the mood throughout, offering up kaleidoscopic visuals for the bridge of ‘Hero’ and stark colour contrasts during ‘Black Man In A White World.’
The supporting visuals made the show a true multimedia spectacle, with an astoundingly tight performance, fantastic sound quality, and a stage set up to rival the best.
The only drawback to such a setup is that it restricts the setlist, making it harder to add songs on the fly without compromising the overall tone of the gig. Although some of my favourites went unplayed, the song choice was expertly curated, mixing in a good helping of older material with Kiwanuka’s tracklist. ‘Falling’ was a welcome surprise to open the encore, and the softly-lit ‘Rest’ reminded me of the Muswell Hill-born musician’s earlier days.
Even at its bleakest, the show felt triumphant. This was Kiwanuka’s time to shine – and shine he did, showing off his instrumental prowess on ‘Hard To Say Goodbye’ and taking the literal spotlight with the sombre ‘Solid Ground’ – but he never made a fuss of himself, instead electing to slot in as one part of a bigger whole. Ultimately the audience was as much a part of his performance as his phenomenal band, helping to carry ‘Cold Little Heart’ and ‘Love & Hate’ to glory. If one thing was clear, it was that Kiwanuka knows how to write a singable melody.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this was one of the best live concerts I’ve ever seen. We can only imagine the logistics and preparation that go into something like this, and it’s fair to say that workers in any sector of live music could learn a lot from the standards presented here. It was a poignant reminder of why we go to gigs, made all the more intense through songs like the aforementioned ‘Light.’ If there was one concert to lead us out of the darkness, this was indisputably it.