Newly established as a legend of modern soul, Michael Kiwanuka brings his grooves to Birmingham, Music Editor Dylan Lucas reviews

Online music editor. Studying English and History.
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Images by Paul Carless

Michael Kiwanuka has had a very successful year. From releasing Kiwanuka, his most acclaimed album to date, to cementing his spot as a headliner at End of the Road and having been announced to headline Green Man Festival 2020. His performance at the O2 Academy proves he’s ready for that headline slot.

After blaring out Oh Sees’ ‘Sticky Hulks,’ Kiwanuka entered the stage and began playing new fan favourite ‘Piano Joint.’ Kiwanuka clearly had confidence in his new material and it shows in the performance. Cuts from Kiwanuka had some of the strongest reactions of the night. Despite how new they are, they felt just as timeless as cuts from Kiwanuka’s prior releases. While the band’s performance was incredibly tight, the first few songs of the performance did suffer from some issues in the mix, wherein the bass and guitar were far louder than anything else. Kiwanuka’s vocals suffered the most, while he could be heard he didn’t get a chance to shine vocally until the set’s midpoint. In spite of this, the band were visibly performing well and tracks like ‘You Ain’t the Problem’ and ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ still had a chance to shine purely on the strength of their instrumentals.

This was the moment which made it feel like Kiwanuka was ready for the headline slots

By the time Kiwanuka performed ‘Black Man in a White World,’ the sound issues had been resolved and it showed. Likely the highlight of the set, the song’s performance was wonderful. Without missing a beat, Michael laid out the hook with a groove that got the entire room dancing. This was the moment which made it feel like Kiwanuka was ready for the headline slots. The energy of the crowd here was electric and despite his generally quiet disposition, Kiwanuka had a stage presence deeply reminiscent of the unfazed rockstar stereotype.

Other highlights of the show included ‘Hero’ and ‘Solid Ground’ the latter of which served as a solid send out to the main set. The glitz and glamour sound of Kiwanuka translated well to a live setting; adding a level of dramatics to the live show which elevated the track as a stunning conclusion which almost makes you wish it had been the closer on the album.

The glitz and glamour sound of Kiwanuka translated well to a live setting

The encore was more reserved than expected. Initially fairly drawn back with performances of ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’ and ‘Home Again,’ both of which began acoustically with the band coming in midway through. While things did pick up for the performance of ‘Cold Little Heart’ there was little energy from the crowd. In a way, this was appreciated as it allowed for both this track and the finale performance of ‘Love and Hate’ to feel more introspective. While the power of the show was embedded in the new cuts, it was nice to hear a more soulful side to the show’s final tracks. A strange subversion from the norm of dramatic conclusion which honestly felt refreshing to hear.

Essentially, the Kiwanuka tour has cemented the titular artist as one of modern soul’s most essential live acts. The embracing of 70’s elements doesn’t feel outdated but uniquely modernised for the 21st century. Meanwhile, the older tracks still feel impactful after years of performance. If this is the show Michael Kiwanuka will be bringing to the Summer festival season then sun-drenched festival-goers are in for a treat.

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