Live Review: Michael Kiwanuka – The Ritz, Manchester

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Two albums down, two albums nominated for the Mercury Prize, one going straight to No. 1 and another sold-out tour coming to an end, before he heads off to mainland Europe, the US and then back to Blighty via Australia. It’s safe to say that Michael Kiwanuka has been working pretty damn hard! What’s more, it would be understandable, given that this was his final stop on his latest UK jaunt, if he was to ease the pace a little, as I’ve witnessed with other acts (who shall remain nameless) on the final night of a tour. But Michael Kiwanuka is not like that. Despite his casual appearance and quiet persona on stage, he has a wonderful aura around him that is unequivocally engaging – modest, honest, yet passionate from beginning to end.

The show opened with dimmed lights and a slow, atmospheric build for latest album-opener Cold Little Heart, echoing the sublime, David Gilmour-esque slide guitar that gives Love & Hate its grand and impressive ten-minute introduction. Even without the record’s string section and choral harmonies, it is a stunning opening to the show and with the addition of Kiwanuka’s grainy and soulful vocals five-minutes in, it’s practically flawless.

Joined on stage by an exceptional backing-band of keys, drums, percussion, bass and the coolest guitarist I’ve seen for a long time (well, since Miles James, his previous tour-guitarist!), Michael Kiwanuka has clearly come a long way since I first saw him, timid and nervous, at Manchester’s Deaf Institute in 2011. Yet despite taking on a host of additional musicians and working with the likes of Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton on Love & Hate, Kiwanuka has sustained his quality for writing honest, desperate and often heartbreaking songs.

Fan favourites Black Man In A White World and the loose and grooving One More Night inevitably go down well, along with hits from his tremendous debut Home Again, including Tell Me A Tale which sees Kiwanuka doo-dooing the jazz flute parts, with the crowd having a humorous attempt as well. Nonetheless, it is during the most reflective, poignant and visceral moments that Kiwanuka really shines. The brutally open Falling and Rule The World stun the audience into silence, whilst his agonising tale of a relationship running its course on The Final Frame display both Kiwanuka’s continuing ability to write tortured, blues-driven masterpieces, as well as his guitarist’s exceptional talent for a driving, electric solo.

The night comes to an end with a decent, Kiwanuka-style cover of Prince’s Sometimes It Snows In April, before bringing it to an early close (tonight we were at The Ritz which means we all have to clear off so the kids can have their clubnight…ahem), with a gorgeous rendition of album single and title-track, Love & Hate. It’s a rousing and spirited number, ideal for a set-closer with bit of audience-participation and, despite it’s heavy lyrics, ends his latest UK tour in superb style.

On this final track, Michael Kiwanuka pleads, ‘I need something, give me something wonderful’. One can only hope that he at least finds joy in performing his incredible work to crowds such as this, as we certainly experienced something wonderful this evening.

Words & Image by Dom Kay