Michael Kiwanuka: a modern day soul artist

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Photograph: Album cover

For a bloke who is “calling for demons not to let go” when he gets up on stage, Michael Kiwanuka is remarkably calm and nice about it all. Maybe it was mere relief at the gig’s conclusion, but he tolerated the self-conscious fanboy approach for a picture and shoddy efforts at iPhone flash photography with inordinate politeness and grace (see below). One of the strongest of this year’s Mercury nominees, Kiwanuka, a former session guitarist for renowned soul drummer James Gadson and, slightly less cool (sorry!), Labrinth, released his sophomore effort, Love and Hate, in July of this year. The album reached no. 1 in the UK within a week and BBC’s Sound of 2012 winner has been riding on the billows of a popularity surge ever since, having just added further dates to his tour itinerary, most notably at the Albert Hall and further afield in Australia.

Photograph by author
Photo: Zeb Baker-Smith

After an hour of supporting artist Isaac Gracie’s stark, grating guitar ballads, the shivering strings and fragile guitar line introduction of Love and Hate’s opening track ‘Cold Little Heart’ arose from the band. If there is one thing that has changed from his first album Home Again (2012), the current kooky, Pink Floyd-esque instrumentation makes the case for Kiwanuka not simply being a soul artist, but a folky rocker too. Songs like the bluesy clap track ‘Black Man In A White World’ – watching the nearly all-white audience singing this hook was worth the entrance fee itself – evoke Steve McQueen-imagined cotton-picking scenes at a Louisiana plantation with a bit of Bill Withers and Terry Callier tossed in. But, despite the genre’s characteristic Wurlitzer organs in ‘Falling’, the growl and purr of the warpy, distorted lead guitar in ‘Place I Belong’, behind the scatted mumbling, there is an open admission of the artist’s own deficiencies and resignation to failure and isolation within the lyrics of ‘I’ll Never Love’ and ‘Love and Hate’ that better resembles self-proclaimed influences Nick Drake or Leonard Cohen (who presumably can take a smidgen of credit for the album title).

Photograph: Album cover
Photo: WikiCommons

Yet it must be highlighted that, the name of one track and current social climate regardless, there is little sign, if any, that this is a record about racial issues, unlike those of many black artists this year. Indeed, Kiwanuka was born to Ugandan-born immigrant parents who had escaped the Amin regime in the 70s, but in no way is this a protest album, despite his continued, yet quiet, reservations about the predominantly white British music industry and his status as one of, if not the, only black acoustic guitarists in the country.

Incidentally, Kiwanuka has talked surprisingly openly about the intervening years between albums and the desire he had to quit music completely, and this vocational dip seems to have lent a more melancholic and gritty edge to the sober and psalmic, but ever relevant, air of ‘Always Waiting’ and ‘Home Again’ of four years ago.

Apart from the premature ending to what was a relatively short (and cramped) concert of just over 80 minutes – the only disappointment of the night – the spiritedness of the artist and his eight-strong band on show in Edinburgh will no doubt spur ticket sales for these recently announced spring dates. So if you’re dreading another May Ball and need a warm-up after your dip, get yourself down to O2 ABC Glasgow for a pre-exam concert. I know which I’d rather go to!

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