The Ford Ampitheatre is one of Los Angeles’ hidden gems. Nestled on the side of the 101 Freeway in the Hollywood Hills, the venue has been the host to many rising stars just as they were about to get their break. Now you can Michael Kiwanuka to that roster.
On an idyllic Tuesday night when the weather couldn’t have been any better, Kiwanuka brought the soulful sounds from his debut album, Home Again, to his first outdoor show in the area. Backed by a terrific five-piece band, Kiwanuka played for little over an hour, playing nearly his entire record along with a cover and new song sprinkled in as well.
For those who have seen him perform before, the show may have been a bit of a disappointment. That’s not to say that the music or the show was off (it wasn’t), it’s just that he played a set that was nearly a carbon copy of his other shows. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, it seems like the venue was filled with first-timers who appreciated the sharp musicianship that comes with seeing Kiwanuka live.
Everything about the Ford seemed to fit Kiwanuka’s minimalist approach. There wasn’t an elaborate background, only a few of nature that gave the music a certain degree of warmth that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. Nothing about the music screams exquisite virtuoso along the lines of someone like Stevie Vai, yet when translated live, the songs had character and soul, which is the hallmark of great songwriting.
What makes Kiwanuka’s live show standout is how he’s able to bring out the different elements and stylings that may not have stood out on his album. In addition to him getting the neo-soul label, there’s a fair amount of blues, traditional folk, R&B and rock in his music. If anything, the Otis Redding comparison that the 24-year-old has attracted may seem lofty to some, but it’s entirely accurate when assessing the combination of skill and writing ability, especially when you factor in that "I'll Get Along" sounds strikingly similar to the R&B legend.
Like Redding, Kiwanuka is a terrific arranger and his control over both the crowd and his band was the trait of a music veteran, not a newcomer with one album to his name. Constantly cracking jokes and telling stories, he endeared himself to the crowd and those efforts were appreciated.
At the end of the night, what makes Michael Kiwanuka standout, above anything else, is his music. It’s hard to believe that with the confidence and comfort he has on-stage that he’s only one album into his career. He was rightfully nominated for the Mercury Prize in his native England and he has too much talent to not replicate this success. Judging by the way Kiwanuka felt about his audience and they about him, both had a strange suspicion that they wouldn’t be seeing the last of one another.