Review: There’s nothing contrived about Michael Kiwanuka (North Sea Jazz)

Maybe it’s his calm demeanor. Maybe it’s his preference for making music instead of putting on a show. Maybe it’s because of the many congeners he has. Guests like Curtis Harding, Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr. all do a little of what he does, but just a little less well. Perhaps it is due to his skin color, and to how the mainly white Dutch public always has less eye for black musicians. Whatever it is, we don’t give Michael Kiwanuka the attention he deserves.

Photography via North Sea Jazz

Even when we open the program books today and see his name, we think: ‘Oh yes, that retro soul singer. From Home Again However? Always good, that boy.’ And then we move on to a hipper act. Shame. Because in the Nile tonight Kiwanuka shows that they are one of the best soul singers in the world. Like a dark Harry Potter, the British singer with Ugandan roots disarms a mega audience with spell after spell. He looks relaxed, but his singing comes from deep and his voice makes a lot of sense.

Since its breakthrough record, Kiwanuka has evolved a lot. He is no longer just a (retro) soul singer, but also a guitar hero and the creator of two completely unique musical universes. Albums Love & Hate and KIWANUKA are two of the most unique records a soulman has ever released. Kiwanuka seamlessly fuses rock, soul, funk, afrobeat, hip-hop and ten other sources of influence in his songs. He writes about politics and pain, about people and society, but musically he also has one foot in the Mothership, through songs with a futuristic approach.

Live, in the great Nile tonight, all the nuances in his music are amazingly intact. An old-school sample at the heart of Final Days makes the room swing; the afrofuturistic, Blaxploitation soundtrack-soundscape with which the song ends, puts the audience in a trance. In the grand finale Love & Hate slides the crackling guitar solo climax straight through the pa-pa-ba-dum-pa sing-along chorus, into the arrangement. Beautiful not only sings Kiwanuka himself, but also the two singers next to him. The contrast between their old-fashioned, high soul voices and his raw, cutting throat is beautiful. The trio complete each other.

From debut Home Again Kiwanuka only plays the title track, as a thank you to the audience. The whole room sings softly. This song was played so many times on radio and television years ago that we were tired of it. overexposure made us forget what a timeless song it really is. Beautiful in all its simplicity. It is a pity that Kiwanuka no longer sings anything from his debut album. The only thing that could be better tonight is the balance between hard and soft songs. The first part of the set in particular is full of recent, rock-oriented work. A Tell Me A Tale or I’m Getting Ready in between would provide just a little more variety.

But a grouch who cares about that. Michael Kiwanuka gives a great performance. There is nothing artificial about this man or his performance. With one hundred percent pure musicianship, with good songs, a good voice and good playing, he inspires a large audience to sing along aloud, enraptures them, and a moment later he gets them quiet again. This guy simply doesn’t need a show. He guarantees great performances in which the music comes first.

Seen: July 9, 2022 at North Sea Jazz (6 p.m., Nile). Read all our reviews of North Sea Jazz here.

The summer edition of EAR is off!

order it here