A 29 year old Londoner, of Ugandan heritage, Kiwanuka had mysteriously passed me by until 2016. I first came across him on an episode of Later… With Jools Holland, where his single ‘Black Man In A White World’ stood out like a Bengal Tiger entering Crufts. A typically bland, anodyne Jools show was ripped apart by this fist clenched clarion call for acceptance on a troubled planet, a riot of handclaps, attitude and the type of soul it’s impossible to fake. It sounded like a modern day civil rights anthem, resonating powerfully in the year of the Black Lives Matter movement, not since At The Drive- In ripped the studio a new one back in the year 2000 had the programme been subjected to such a towering statement of intent.
Uneasy to listen to, impossible to ignore, I knew there and then that Michael Kiwanuka was a name to remember. As the months flew by, I noticed that many of my friends and associates on Facebook were also praising the virtues of this new album, Love & Hate. Being an old fashioned sod when it comes to the consumption of music (I have never paid for a download, or used Spotify), I went into HMV and bought the album on CD. It didn’t disappoint; if anything, in fact, it exceeded my expectations, a ball-explodingly potent cocktail of soul, funk, rock, gospel and blues, far too singular, intellectual and emotionally complex to categorise under one single genre. Needless to say, when I heard he was coming to Liverpool the following year I jumped straight in and bought a ticket, eager to see if this boy wonder was as incendiary live as he is on record.
From the atmospheric, moody, slow burning soulfulness of opener ‘Place I Belong’, to the soul-baring gospel howl of ‘Father’s Child’ (which brings to mind Spiritualized around the time of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’), this is an impressively accomplished set from a performer at the height of his powers. Watching the sold out, predominantly white, mostly second generation (most of the youngsters here are accompanied by a parent or older relative) audience go crazy to ‘Black Man In A White World’ is a faintly surreal sight, one that seems to encapsulate Liverpool in all its contrary, madcap glory, the type you can only really recognise if you’re familiar with everyday life here on a full-time basis. Elsewhere, the tortured twanging of ‘The Final Frame’ brings to mind late seventies Pink Floyd, whilst also undercut with a sugar-sweet soul waltz which only serves to make the frenzied riffing all the more unnerving.
Encoring with the epic ‘Cold Little Heart’, which brings to mind the extended psych-soul workouts on Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, and the second album’s title track, ‘Love & Hate’, with its echoes of seventies Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield around the time of the ‘Superfly’ soundtrack, there is every reason tonight to expect Michael Kiwanuka to take on the world as a global megastar. Although there are no obvious concessions to old fashioned showmanship, saying very little between songs other than to thank the crowd, he certainly cuts a striking figure with his distinctive Afro haircut and guitar playing prowess; it’s surely only a matter of time before the masses prick up their ears and take notice. Whether this is the direction he wishes to go in or not remains to be seen; right here, right now though, Michael Kiwanuka can do no wrong. A class act.
For more information on Michael Kiwanuka please head to his official website http://www.michaelkiwanuka.com/