Janelle Monae, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 Reach for Higher Ground: Concert Review
Two stars shine at the venerable Bowl, offering pure talent and charisma in place of pyrotechnics.
Janelle Monae’s recorded output (an EP, Metropolis, released in 2007, followed by two full-length Bad Boy/Atlantic albums, 2010’s The ArchAndroid and last year’s Electric Lady) has followed the story of Cindy Mayweather, an android from the future sent back to earth to save us from the secretive Great Divide and allow us to live and love in peace and freedom...or something like that. By this point, the overarching narrative has turned byzantine and attenuated. Thankfully, with few exceptions, her hyperactive, thoroughly entertaining Hollywood Bowl debut (and the first of this year’s KCRW World Festival series) pretty much jettisoned the concept and relied on pure star power.
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The 80-minute show might be divided into acts, drawing heavily from Electric Lady, prefaced by the cosmic harmonies of Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (associated with science fiction since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Monae first appears wrapped in a straightjacket, wheeled onstage on a hand-truck, and is carried off-stage by one of her white-suited roadies at the finale, but the album’s expository skits and commentary are not missed. Only her announcement that she is here to start a revolution nods toward the Mayweather story. Once the music starts in earnest, with the slinky stomp of “Givin’ Em What They Love,” that’s all forgotten, in favor of her smart, retro, yet inventive, take on R&B and soul.
She has a high, piping voice that is best shown off by the jittery neo-Motown of “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which takes advantage of her infectious shouts, when she can sound uncannily like the young Michael Jackson. And like Jackson, she is a bundle of dance energy, in constant motion. She shakes, shimmies and slides, while her nine-piece band, an op-art vision in black and white, navigates the mix of Motown, James Brown, P-Funk (guitarist Kellindo Parker shines, slicing off lunatic solos that limn the psychedelic Jimi Hendrix style of Eddie Hazel and Gary Shider), prog-rock, noise and modern-day R&B.
She owns her influences, giving the crowd a sidelong look when she moonwalks during “Electric Lady,” including a three-song Jackson 5 medley, a spring-loaded take on Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” and in a carom shot, bringing out Stevie Wonder to duet and add some jazzy piano to Brown’s “I Feel Good.” “Primetime,” on the other hand, is a meringue of a power ballad demanding equality (or, as she oddly put it in the introduction, “no one should be judged because of their hair, the color of their skin, or the shape of their nose”) set to the kind of soaring chorus tailor-made for pop radio.
For all that was happening, it was easy to miss the one thing that was thankfully missing from her show: there was no wall of videos screens offering up images. Someone realized that you don’t need more than smart light, set and costume design when you have a performer as riveting as Monae, and that sheer charisma is the best special effect.
Opening act Seun Kuti also got by on pure talent, a great band and impressive songs. Now firmly established as the heir to the musical legacy of his late father, the irreplaceable Fela Kuti (and backed by Fela’s Egypt 80 band), he takes advantage of the wind of the Fela! musical at his back, and nudges the Afrobeat sound into the present, both live and on his new, Robert Glasper-produced album, A Long Way to the Beginning (Knitting Factory). He opens his set paying tribute to Fela, by covering “Dog Eat Dog” and “VIP,” and follows them with originals that stick to the Afrobeat blueprint; he plays sax with Fela’s exclamatory fire, and uses some of the his father’s dance moves. He even retains Fela’s love of repurposing acronyms; in his hands, “IMF” stands for “International Mother….,” but is a blunter instrument than his father, with gruffer voice and even more declamatory phrasing.
O Introduction to the Palace of the Dogs
Suite IV Electric Overture
Givin Em What They Love
II: Rising Action
Jackson 5 Medley (I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save)
I Feel Good (James Brown cover, with Stevie Wonder)
Let’s Go Crazy (Prince cover)
What An Experience
Dog Eat Dog