t’s a fairly safe statement to say that Exeter doesn’t always attract the biggest or best names in music. However, every now and then in amongst the early 00s pop punk acts and dad rock bands of yesteryear you’ll find a gem. On this occasion it happened to be double Mercury prized award nominated singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka, who took to Exeter’s Phoenix last month in thrilling style. It has certainly been a huge year for Kiwanuka, who saw his sophomore effort Love & Hate reach the top of the UK chart alongside glowing reviews from the critical sphere. This record saw a large departure from his more folksy singer-songwriter roots, as displayed on debut album Home Again, in favour of a more modern soul vibe, something that made this show all the more exciting prospect for me personally, having garnered a great interest in Kiwanuka after picking up Love & Hate earlier this year.
First, however, was support act Isaac Gracie, another young singer-songwriter who was accumulating a lot of attention in his own right with his noteworthy brand of haunting acoustic folk. A tall figure with long hair, Gracie serenaded the early crowd members with his soft melodies and honest lyricism, setting a contemplative mood for the evening. Despite casting a rather lonely presence on the stage he captivated the audience making the spacious main room of the Phoenix appear all the more intimate. Whilst early comparisons to cult icon Jeff Buckley may be somewhat ill conceived and rather lazy there’s no denying that he most certainly is a bright talent who deserves to move on to bigger and better things.
This record saw a departure from his folksy singer-songwriter roots
Kiwanuka swiftly followed, opening with the psychedelically tinged ‘Cold Little Heart’ (a song that wouldn’t look out of place on a Pink Floyd album) building with sparklingly cold synths as each band member gradually arrived on stage before embarking on the 10-minute epic, reaching a climatic crescendo and enthralling the sold out crowd from the get go.
The songs came thick and fast, with Kiwanuka and his talented band getting straight down to business and subsequently launching into the strutting ‘One More Night’, a song that in particular showcased his soulful, chocolaty voice, something that was even more tantalising live than it sounds in the studio. Further highlights came in the form of the crowd-pleasing ‘Black Man in a White World’, a track that got the audience grooving to its slick rhythms as well as joining in with its infectious handclaps, with the more retrospective ‘Rule the World’ also standing out as a poignant moment in the set. It was also clear to see the sheer talent of Kiwanuka’s backing band (which interestingly featured both a drummer and percussionist, both of whom complimented each other well), all of whom were tightly in sync and individual masters of their respective craft and pivotal in creating such a slick and full live sound.
On the whole the set was rather Love & Hate heavy with 9 of the 12 songs performed coming off the album. However, one song that really stood out as one of the highpoints was the simple, acoustic ‘I’m Getting Ready’, a standout moment that also acted as a bridge between the old and new material, sitting well against the more layered neo-soul that dominated the set. In spite of only playing 12 songs (only 11 of which were original tracks, with Kiwanuka starting the encore with a nicely arranged rendition of Prince’s ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’), the duration of the concert seemed more than adequate, with the band’s tightness seeing them expertly navigate interesting segues and jams, not to mention that a lot of Kiwanuka’s recent material itself is fairly expansive in its scope. In fact, such is the maturity of Kiwanuka’s sound that its sometimes difficult to remember that he is only a tender 29 years old, with only his joke about exploring the city of Exeter after the electricity on his tour bus broke down, prohibiting him from playing the video game FIFA, acting as reminder as to just how young the promising singer-songwriter is.
The final song of the evening came in the form of the titular song from his latest album Love & Hate, a thrilling 7 minute blend of modern soul, gospel and retro 70s inspired psych rock of which culminated in a fine, masterfully executed guitar solo. Whilst this may have been Kiwanuka’s first trip to Exeter, I sincerely hope it is not his last, as it was a privilege to witness of Britain’s brightest and talented solo artists of the moment perform in such an intimate space.