Everything about British singer-song writer-musician Michael Kiwanuka screams throwback: his unfussy, bohemian dress; the ‘70s-home-movie vibe of his dreamy, color-drenched videos and, of course, his expertly crafted songs that channel the spirit voices of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, music bursting with passion yet free of gimmick or glitter. That’s what shines brightest, his easy smile coming in a close second.
Months after dazzling audiences as the opening act for the second U.K. leg of the Adele Live tour last summer, Kiwanuka topped this year’s BBC’s “Sound of” poll, mirroring Adele’s 2008 win and besting a talent roster that included Frank Ocean, Azealia Banks, Skrillex and Niki & The Dove. Critics aside, fans in 14 countries have declared the 24-year-old North Londoner a hit, and—wouldn’t you know it?—the U.S. of A. is on the late freight. Hopefully, that’ll change with his acclaimed studio debut Home Again, released in May, and continued praise from contemporaries like Ed Sheeran and John Mayer. A Facebook post from actress Nicole Kidman less than a month ago proclaims “Can’t stop listening to Michael Kiwanuka!” Yeah? Get in line, sister.
Her addiction is understandable. Produced and mixed by A Band of Bees’ Paul Butler, Home Again begins with a bit of a musical tease for the uninitiated: “Tell Me a Tale,” where shimmers of Afrobeat undergird Kiwanuka’s melodic pleas, fluctuating from Fela Kuti-esque rhythms and fluttering horn-flute combos to plaintive refrains akin to Bill Withers at top form. What it promises in deft arrangement and sheer musicianship makes the rest of a damn good album practically a letdown. But the LP’s title cut and debut single made a decent showing on U.K.’s singles chart, ably showcasing Kiwanuka’s guitarist chops alongside his gift for crafting lyrics that simultaneously ground listeners and send ‘em soaring.
Kiwanuka’s latest was recently nominated, with 11 of his British peers, for the Mercury Prize for Album of the Year, facing competition that includes works from Plan B, Richard Hawley, Jessie Ware and Ben Howard. It’s doubtful the humble artist is pressed, only thankful. But we’ll keep our fingers crossed on his behalf, if for no other reason than to honor those to whom he pays such beautiful tribute.
Thurs., Sept. 20, 7pm. $16.50. With Marcus Foster + Foy Vance. Trocadero Theatre, 1003 Arch St. 215.922.6888. thetroc.com
PW's Music Issue 2014