March 20th, 2011

Janelle Monáe | Camden Roundhouse 1/3/11

Reviewed by Ste Davis

When an act make their introduction via a video professing themselves to be the emissary of a robot revolution sent back in time, you know you’re not at a typical gig. You might be at a meeting with the governor of California, but that’s another story. Anyway, this is how a bequiffed Janelle Monáe makes her entrance to a sold-out crowd at The Roundhouse tonight.

Bedecked in spats and tuxes, it’s like the Mos Eisley cantina was sucked through a wormhole and reconstructed itself in prohibition-era downtown Chicago. Part sci-fi swing party, part rock ‘n’ roll jam part nearly everything else, it’s all skilfully and seamlessly handled by an expert backing band, every song is note perfect.

Sound problems mean the vocals are low in the mix and near impossible to hear for the first couple of songs, but it’s during a minimal, guitar-and-vocals cover of Nat King Cole’s Smile where things really find their groove. From that point on the show storms through the faster, more danceable moments from last year’s The Archandroid album. Musically, few performers have meshed such a broad range of genres since Prince. And like Prince, Monáe packs a lot of stage presence into a petit package. Whether it’s the soft shoe shuffle during opener Dance or Die or blasting her cloaked backing singers with her ray-gun/finger, it’s hard to pull your eyes away from the stage.

After a one-two hit of Cold War and Tightrope (sadly sans Big Boi, but fingers crossed that will be rectified at this year’s Glastonbury, where they share the bill) the party is in full swing and what follows is an electrifying gig by an amazing performer that has everybody partying like it’s Judgement Day.

The antithesis of most pop singers that talk of themselves as ‘artists’, (I’m looking at you, American Idol. The way Randy Jackson talks about some of those kids you’d think they were the Picasso of power ballads) Monáe is a walking art concept. Similar to Lady Gaga she’s obviously a fan of the Whorholian pop-as-product and doesn’t let her mask slip. Theatrics may be on the setlist for tonight, but breaking the 4th wall apparently isn’t. It may be at moments impersonal, and feel as if you’re watching a great stageshow rather than great music, but somewhere between being showered with balloons and being instructed to lie on the Roundhouse floor during an extended Come Alive jam, it’s difficult to care.

Like Gaga she has the character, the image, the performance, the product all locked down but where she differs is that she is backed by better tunes (oh come on now we were all disappointed with Born This Way) and a broader musical palette. Both suffer slightly from being a performance art piece without any higher ‘meaning’, but doesn’t art also have a mandate to entertain? Surely if something fires up your feet as well as your neurotransmitters that’s a bonus.

When the howls of Hendrix’s Purple Haze start over the PA and the house lights lights come up there’s little doubt that Monáe is a creative force and a leftfield popstar waiting to happen.

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