Janelle Monáe’s return to the UK last week picked up precisely where her brief run of December shows left off, right down to the entertainingly MC’d intro and the flawlessly choreographed stage antics of The ArchAndroid‘s curious cast. Appearing on film, Monáe’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather introduces the elaborate time-travelling robot love story that informs the central concept behind the album and live show, as far-fetched and ambitious as they are, demanding coolly that the ABC crowd must “dance or die”. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone, but Monáe has a lot more in store as her theatrical spectacle unfolds. Three cowled figures take centre stage for the slow-building overture, revealing themselves one by one to be Monáe and two similarly coiffed backing dancers. Clips from Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ play out on the projections, but the sci-fi concept is really secondary to the seamless performance. The whole thing is audaciously professional. The band are made to work, the brass section move in formation, and every flourish is well rehearsed. This show is all about timing.
After a high-energy three-song burst with no breathers, things slow down for a stunning rendition of the Nat King Cole standard, ‘Smile’. Performed solo with jazz guitar accompaniment, it demonstrates (as if anyone could still be in doubt) that Monáe is an honest-to-goodness proper singer with an impressive vocal range: no AutoTune, no histrionics and, despite the theatrics, no hiding behind gimmicks. Then, diving straight back in to celebratory mode, ‘Wondaland’ fulfils its promise to become a party tune as a confetti cannon fires white flakes over the room and the dancers hand out party blowers, demanding that the audience join in. The trippy vibes of ‘Mushrooms & Roses’ don’t quite descend into a similarly full-on freakout; instead a painting easel appears, on which Monáe daubs what looks like a feminine silhouette with a fat brush, singing with note-for-note precision all the while. The brilliant single ‘Cold War’, sounding like Stevie Wonder in space, is accompanied by footage of Muhammad Ali boxing that segues into a lightsabre battle from ‘Star Wars’ as the guitarist does his best emulation of a Purple Rain-era solo. Main set closer ‘Tightrope’ sees black and white balloons float over the crowd from all sides as clips from ‘Man On Wire’ play on the screen and Monáe stalks the stage in yet another cape.
Returning for The B-52s zombie-funk meets Louis Jordan stomp of ‘Come Alive (War Of The Roses)’, the band achieve a futuristic fusion of styles that perfectly fits Monáe’s bold concept. And when the MC jumps up from the pit and the whole band crisscross the stage to inspire the audience to join in with the breakdown, the effect is truly inspiring. Monáe’s trademark quiff finally comes loose and more confetti is fired as the band literally get down, lying on the stage as the music drops and their willing disciples, the audience, squat down to the floor to join in the final flourish. Then, as Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ plays to clear the room, the band sneak back to reward the faithful. The artwork created earlier is awarded to a fan who can prove that today is his birthday and, at the MC’s insistence, any crowd members dressed in black and white tuxedos are invited onto the stage. Even then, Monáe never drops out of character, communicating only through her flamboyant counterpart, whispering behind her hand when she spots a devoted acolyte in the crowd.
Calculatedly cool, fully formed and surprising, Monáe’s invigorating live show more than meets expectations, delivering on the promise of the album with a blend of James Brown, Andre 3000 and Grace Jones (or, as one audience member put it, “Prince duetting with the Flaming Lips while dancing with the reanimated corpse of Michael Jackson”). What seems like crazed ambition in theory seems less extreme when rendered as a rigorously organised funk revue meets Broadway musical. The result: an hour’s worth of pure entertainment.
[photo by Toni Rosado, used under Creative Commons licence]