Oh, How She Comes Alive!
I went to see Janelle Monae's opener for Of Montreal last night at Lawrence's Liberty Hall. I went with my brother and nephew, wondering if I'd talked them into it, and if I had, worrying and not certain at all that the show would be half as good as I imagined it could be.
I was a little worried about the almost all white crowd, clearly there to see Of Montreal, a phenomenon I knew nothing about except for the stuff they've done with Monae and Big Boi. Since this was as close to a homecoming as she's had this tour, Monae had her KCK family there, in a reserved area of the balcony, which made for an unfortunate racial dynamic. I mean, for the longest time I saw only one Black girl on a packed floor of people who looked like they were trying out for Cirque de Soleil.
Anyway, all anxieties lessened within moments of the set's start time. After some surprisingly effective theatrics--Her ArchAndroid Wizard of Oz head, hanging over the stage, explaining she'd sent her emissary Janelle Monae to essentially free our asses so our minds would follow--Janelle and her two women back up dancers threw off their hoods and took command...well, along with that terrific three piece band of hers.
I didn't keep a set list or anything, but she ran through that opening three-song suite on the new album, hitting harder and harder, and then she did Nat King Cole's "Smile" alone with her guitarist. Her performance of "Sincerely, Jane," from the first record was a real showstopper, with this casual bit of theatrics where she used a finger gun to shoot down these zombie-like figures (probably members of Of Montreal) lurking around the stage--pertinent lyric, "Are we really living or just walking dead now?"
The house was packed, people were dancing everywhere, the show was already what most shows would call a fever pitch.
After a few more uptempo things--the inevitable duet with the Of Montreal guy (which is okay, I think, on the album, but definitely the low point of the set) and "Wondaland," which was a kind of psychedelic explosion of energy, she slowed things down again for the Axis: Bold As Love-ish "Mushroom and Roses." During that song, she donned her cloak and painted a picture, suggesting a female backside, while guitarist Kellindo Parker did his best Hendrix impression--it was like they were both painting colors on twin canvasses. After the last verse, she capped the painting with some bright yellow Xs and wrote "I Love You" and posted the work at the side of the stage.
The Stevie Wonder-ish free form songs off the new album, like "Oh Maker," were particularly wonderful. Her voice was so strong throughout the evening--fluid and natural, swooping and diving and emphasizing the lyrics just as needed to focus the crowd.
When she hit "Cold War," my only regret was that I knew the set was drawing to a close. Shots of Ali boxing flashed across screens behind her...then, of course, she started throwing punches of her own after Kellindo took the "Kellindo!" solo. "Tightrope" was every bit as big a finish as expected.
The crowd called long and hard for an encore, and she and her crew came out to do "Come Alive," the punkiest song of the evening, and the one that makes me think of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. It was particularly aggressive and effective live. In a bit of smart planned spontaneity, dancers and other extras--there were quite a few, whether from Of Montreal or her own entourage--moved into the front of the crowd, so it was pretty evident she would stage dive or something.
At one point, she fell to the floor on stage in a sort of charismatic fit, before getting up and descending into the pit. I could see her head bobbing as she danced at the center of a tight circle of folks maybe fifteen feet away, but she was pretty much invisible (probably not from the balcony). Then she returned to the stage, picked her mic stand up like John Henry (or Jimi Hendrix, or Pete Townshend) and slammed it to the floor. One final conductor jump, with the group, and it all came to a decisive end with "Purple Haze" blasting over the house speakers.
My friend Ben Bielski and his daughter, who is a fan, showed up just before it started, and we were all pretty giddy after the set. Ben said something like "that's the kind of thing that comes along once a decade," and I found myself wondering if I've ever seen "that kind of thing"....
All I know is I can't wait to see more.