For an album whose mode is most often melancholic, Michael Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate translates into a surprisingly energetic, even joyous live experience. These aren’t radical reconstructions of the album’s original tracks, but they are injected with a vitality and momentum that unearths the latent funk buried in the album’s slow-build introspection.
Kiwanuka can thank his superb backing band for a lot of that. His lead-guitarist, he of the towering afro and gold-painted guitar, is particularly thrilling to watch, spiralling into displays of virtuosity that electrify every song. His percussionist is equally outstanding – in a quietly pivotal kind of way.
Kiwanuka offers little in stage presence – the occasional ‘thank you’, pushed to a ‘thank you so much’ and a surprised smile after two minutes applause rounds off Black Man in a White World – but when his music and lyricism are as engaging as this it’s largely irrelevant.
He may not be much for talking or moving, but there’s no denying the effort he and his band put in. Across each sprawling track you could see the sweat fly from Kiwanuka’s face as he hammered his guitar. These are harder, louder songs than their album versions, prone to extending themselves with driving jams and solos from the aforementioned guitarist. Detached from the album’s lush strings, it’s a more grounded, sonically diverse sound. In the shift of atmosphere the sadness disillusionment of Love and Hate seems less present, and instead Kiwanuka’s self-assurance takes centre stage.
If a criticism can be levelled at the performance it would only be its brevity. The customary fake-out encore was as unnecessary as ever, especially coming as it did right as the crowd were truly getting into the show. Lasting just over 90 minutes, the set breezed by, no doubt due to the pace of the performance, but also in part due to the length of each track. A more low-key acoustic number was perhaps the only tune not to land, preceded as it was by an apology that things would be slowing down, and followed by what appeared to be a setlist change-up to capitalise on a raucous crowd.
Kiwanuka has emerged this year as a bigger, bolder artist than the one who broke out four years ago, He seems at ease with the full band, content to cut loose, proud to put on a show that can really get a crowd going. At one point Michael asked why he’d never come to Belfast before; save the date for when he comes back.