The Royal Albert Hall has a tendency to overshadow those who play in it. Like the Hollywood Bowl, Red Rocks and Carnegie Hall, it has become a star in its own right. Cream played their farewell gig here. Dylan played his final UK solo acoustic set here. That picture of Hendrix that everyone recognises – that was taken here. Michael Kiwanuka, the rising soul star whose latest album went to number one and was featured in everything from The Get Down to an advert for Beats by Dr Dre, has big shoes to fill.
Spoiler alert: he fills them, and he makes it look like they were made for him.
The venue’s majesty is underlined by support act Clean Cut Kid. Fronted by what can only be described as a beard wearing a hat, they play upbeat, sunny pop-rock, with occasional lashings of melodic shredding. The Beard is enormously scouse and very smiley, and after they’ve pogoed through their first track, he announces in thickly accented tones that standing in the same spot as Clapton ‘at that Cream gig’ is giving him ‘rock on’. The good-natured crowd laugh. It all feels very communal – it’s something of an event to be here for all of us.
After a brief changeover, the small stage is covered in fog and the lights go down. There is an eight-piece string section on the left. Amber floodlights come up behind the risers and an elegantly tousled man in a velvet jacket seats himself at a Wurlitzer. The opening strains of ‘Cold Little Heart’ begin to float from the PA, all restrained, moody beauty. We are held in suspense before the near-empty stage.
Then a cheer rises from the gods as Kiwanuka comes into view offstage. It spreads through the venue, and he walks out to thunderous applause. With a nod and a small smile, he dons his guitar and begins to play the song’s haunting melody on slide. It’s a wonderful moment – stately, musicianly, classy. The music is unhurried and considered, full and rich, but also melancholy, almost weary. There’s a resigned pain mixed with the romantic beauty of his songs. All of this, and we’re only a minute in.
‘Cold Little Heart’ is an eight-minute epic on record, and as the rest of the band join Kiwanuka onstage tonight the piece steadily grows, becoming massive and passing through funk and soaring guitar solos and wailing vocals and then back down again at last to gentle, quavering chords.
It’s an all-out professional masterpiece, and from the off Kiwanuka stamps his authority on this most hallowed of stages – not just a product of popularity but a true artist. If he keeps on like this, it’s not hysterical to suggest that Kiwanuka will one day become a great household name, giving the Clean Cut Kids of the future special feelings.
The rest of the gig is musically varied but consistent in quality. Kiwanuka’s formula is heartfelt soul ballads underpinned by no-nonsense guitar work and the judicious use of strings, but he breaks out the funk occasionally too, as on the samba-inflected ‘Black Man in a White World’, which grooves along to handclaps and blipping congas.
The words are particularly apt tonight – looking back from the barriers, this is an overwhelmingly white audience, and for a moment there are echoes of the arena scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Kiwanuka writes songs with a conscience. This isn’t really the place for a sociological analysis of that conscience, but it suffices to say that even as you clap along, Kiwanuka makes you think carefully about what you’re singing.
An impressive, warm and, I’ll say it again, a stately concert. Tonight, Kiwanuka owns these boards. It is entirely within his power to establish that position for a far longer period of time. This evening felt important.
Michael Kiwanuka’s second album ‘Love & Hate’ is available now. He is touring from now until October, including the Citadel Festival in London on 16/7/17, and a full UK tour in October. Further details can be found at his website: http://www.michaelkiwanuka.com/