Tonight’s gig stimulated an interesting debate about credibility in music. Can an act be "relevant" or "credible" if they have created their art from the safety of a nice middle class upbringing or is only true music forged from the fires of adversity?
Judging by the genteel demographic of the crowd at Brighton's Komedia the only argument you are likely to have is who should be served first at the bar (No, I insist you were here before me) as Michael Kiwanuka's well behaved fans are not bothered by these existential dilemmas.
Such is the transient nature of the music industry Michael Kiwanuka has gone from nobody to Radio One's sound of 2012 in the last 6 months due in small part to a barrel load of hype. His retro brand of folksy soul is at odds with the beats and bleeps that are de-rigueur if you want to break into the Top 40 in 2012. Much like The Artist sweeping the board at the BAFTAS the public is crying out for some simplicity in these complicated times and has taken to Kiwanuka's "realness".
Downstairs at the Komedia they are more familiar with handling drunken office parties and stand up comedy then up and coming musicians. The low ceilings and wooden floor give off air of student common room rather than gig venue but do lend and intimacy to proceedings which suits Kiwanuka's tender songs.
A word for support act The Staves who prompted our credibility debate. They are three attractive sisters who reek of private singing lessons. For me music is music and although they be Straight Outta Suffolk this should not be to their detriment. Their delivery may be prim and mannered but blessed with heavenly voices I can't help but be taken with their brand of sensitive, close harmony. They are like an English version of the Secret Sisters crossed with Simon and Garfunkel. Admittedly some of the songs are so light they just float away into the ether but on Mexico, the title track on their latest EP there is enough sonic invention take make me think you might hear them sound tracking Dawson's Creek (or similar) in the near future.
As Kiwanuka doesn't release his debut album until March I have been brushing up on his back catalogue via Youtube videos and the Tell Me A Tale EP. Normally he plays solo accompanied by a bassist and little else. Today we are graced with a full and funky band which actually adds a welcome dimension to his paired down sound.
Need Your Company for instance is much more dynamic then what we are used to on record. It has a groove that makes it sound like B-side to Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me with funky lead guitar scratches that compliment Kinawuka's honeyed baritone.
Kiwanuka is a slight chap and at only 24 looks every bit the wide eyed debutante with his charmingly humble mid-song patter. He remarks how he is
"..still surprised that people come to my gigs"
The comparisons with Otis Redding and Bill Withers are obvious (black guy + soul voice + guitar) but slightly lazy. There is a strong country tilt to his music and in Always Waiting's clip-cloppy rhythm you could be sitting by the camp fire chowing down on beans and franks under a starry sky.
As this is Brighton, a town with an above average percentage of weirdoes and oddballs, some of the early birds have decided that instead of standing they will sit crossed legged at the foot of the stage. This is great for me as I have an uninterrupted view and adds to the last day of school vibe at the gig.
I'm Getting Ready has Michael in troubadour mode with its warm 70's vibe and spiritual lyrics. Think Jack Johnson if he grew up in Mississippi instead of Hawaii.
On Tell Me A Tale Kiwanuka goes blaxplotation as the song descends into an old funk jam with guitarist Miles James wigging out with the rest of the more then capable band who are on top form. It shows Kiwanuka to be a versatile performer.
He dials it back down a notch with Worry Walks Besides Me a sombre song about some intangible problem he has faced, its moody Hammond solo echoing the downbeat lyrics.
"Coming all over and under my skin
Say if I follow I will die like a king
I'll be doin fine if you just leave me behind"
Bones is old fashioned soul by the numbers and the chilled out Rest brings out the ghost of Otis Redding complete with shaky egg. Whilst comparisons are inevitable Kiwanuka has the knack of creating that classic sound without aping the great masters that have gone before.
Kiwanuka tells us that his most of his songs start with him alone in his room with a acoustic guitar and to emphasise this he sends the band off and does a couple of numbers in the buskers style. As he hums his way throughAny Day Will Do Fine you can hear a pin drop.>
Title track on his new albumHome Again is a modern classic and has some understated melodies to balance the world weary voice. It sounds like an old John Martyn number.
If Kiwanuka ever tires of the Bill Withers comparisons he only has himself to blame. He finishes the set proper with a rollicking version of I Don't Know from 1972's Still Bill. It is hellafunky and I can't help thinking he is mining the same field as Aloe Blacc and that hasn't done him much harm. The audience all get involved and for a few minutes we all succumb to transcendental power of music. the band even bang on some Becks bottle together for percussion. It is absolutely fantastic and Kiwanuka admits that it is the first an audience has stamped their feet for an encore.
It is a bit of an anti climax after that barnstormer but we are treated to as yet unheard new song, the lullabyThe Sand. Whisper it but it sounds a bit Tracy Chapman. Not necessarily a bad thing.
All in all Kinwanuka looks like a man enjoying his new found success backed by a band playing with the brio of a group on their first tour. Plenty of time for them to all grow jaded and complacent in years to come.Kinawuka later remarked on Twitter that:
"The night will definitely live long in my memory."
If you want a flavour of the gig, courtesy of Youtube, you can pretend you were there. Just imagine a few student types sitting cross legged in front of you and feel the good vibes.