Even at early doors, The Leadmill was packed from the get-go. People had travelled for and wide, and Isaac Gracie couldn’t hide his nerves as he picked up his guitar and stepped up as the opener. ‘This is definitely the biggest crowd I’ve played to!’ he mumbled anxiously before taking us through a short set of half acoustic, half electric songs of love and despair. He had an interesting thing going on, a warm Jeff Buckley meets Ryan Adams spirit with a tint of the Tom Odell pop sound. Whilst the acoustic songs were pleasant to listen to, they mostly lacked substance, and the electric tunes were really longing for a band. The poetic charms of Dylans’ ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ was a nice addition, but sadly his own work wasn’t as convincing. With that said, he stepped it up a gear for closer ‘Last Words’, which had real timeless character, incredible melodies and potent, moving lyrics: ‘I thought I was having fun, but no / I was just looking for the one’. It was a shame it was the only diamond of the set; ‘Terrified’ came close, only it was lacking the backing of more instruments. Once he gets that band together, let’s see which side of the Buckley / Odell line young Gracie chooses.
Opening with the dreamy, Floyd-like number ‘Cold Little Heart’, the night was reignited by the hypnotic chords of MK’s keys player, who sat alone before being joined by Kiwanuka himself, equipped with a slide and vintage Strat. This came as a surprise; the ingenuous acoustic strummings that carved his trademark seem to have progressed somewhat, as he dazzled the room with Gilmour-style solos over a drony organ before the band joined one by one. The epic ten minute opener led us into ‘One More Night’, a funky, groove-led piece conjuring up similarities to Winehouse’s ‘You Know I’m No Good’, with a bustling bass line and slick melodies.
Although the new drawn-out, experimental jams from latest LP ‘Love & Hate’ were intriguing, it was the concision of the earlier numbers that really showed off Kiwanuka’s knack for that classic, soulful songwriting. Oldies ‘Always Waiting’ and ‘I’m Getting Ready’ carried such transient simplicity that there was really no escaping their easy-going, ample nature. But the crowd needed a little more convincing. The sound was good, the players were good, but honestly, the atmosphere was lacking. When you watch old clips of soul’s great performers, from the likes of Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield who Kiwanuka is so often compared with, the vibe on stage was electric. From the wild grinning of Bill Withers’ drummer to the cool swaying of Al Green’s horn section, the emotional connection these players projected onto the songs was contagious. You can get the best players in the world on the same stage, but if the vibe isn’t there, the magic is lost.
This absence made the longer, repetitive segments harder to follow. Instead of hypnotic, sonic meditations, they were at times more a repetitive drag, which was a real shame as the progressions Kiwanuka was making with his sound were really interesting. His guitar playing has come on heaps, as he took his second Gilmour solo of the evening during ‘Final Frame’, and the steps he was taking with these longer, psychedelic sections was both compelling and bold. In truth, though, Kiwanuka himself just wasn’t a captivating performer. With only a few polite sentences here and there, his nonchalant calmness did cause disinterest after a while.
With that said, you had to give it to the band. Despite the occasional sterility, the dynamic control and overall playing was outstanding. The seamless transition in ‘Black Man in a White World’ from upbeat funk to super-quiet verses with simple gospel handclaps was remarkable. The set was perfectly rehearsed and choreographed, all round. Come the last tune, the band followed Michael one by one, leaving the keys player on his own where it all began. The whole thing had power and an obvious slickness but, without that onstage ambience, did feel a little contrived.
The crowd seemed happy, nonetheless, and beckoned them all back for a gorgeous rendition of Prince’s ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’, performed with a super-chilled arrangement carried by acoustic guitar and tasteful backing vocals for the majority. It was the finale, ‘Love & Hate’ that epitomised it all, for me; a well-written song with a top-notch melody cooked for far too long ‘till it became, quite frankly, a bore. But all was not lost: there were certainly glimpses of magic, and the deep, visceral beauty of Kinwanuka was very much alive and kicking. There was just that little something missing, that little spark that takes you to that other place. There’s still a lot left in this young soul-folkster, and he’ll figure it out, I’m sure.