Michael Kiwanuka At Park West 9/26/12

Last night Park West in Chicago played host to three great performances by wildly different artists. While their approaches varied greatly, there were some common bonds found between them throughout the night. There were a lot of songs about love and loss, and some great musicianship on display. There was never a dull moment, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

Malaysia-born singer Yuna kicked things off for the night. She was here in Chicago for Lollapalooza back in August, but I never heard anything about her set. I’d listened to her and thought she was pretty good. She’s got a great voice, there’s no denying that. My only issue with her portion of the show was that she seemed a bit nervous and talked way too much. She introduced every song with a story behind it, perhaps convinced that her songs weren’t strong enough to be taken on their own.

She played for only a half hour, and when she was singing and not talking it was cool. She reminds me a little bit of what I thought Nelly Furtado could have been if she’d stopped trying to be a megastar. Yuna is much more soulful than Furtado, so I think once she gets on more solid footing, she’s gonna do really well. I talked to her after and she was very sweet and humble, so she’s got a good head in her shoulders.

Bahamas came next, and I knew very little about them. Friend of the site David McMillin opened for them at Schubas with his band Fort Frances a while back and he told me they were awesome. It only took a few seconds for me to agree. Their style is something no one else is doing right now: one man singing and playing guitar, one drummer, and two female backup singers. They play a kind of indie blues/doowop/soul combo that’s really quite something. Afie Jurvanen, the driving force behind the band, has the look of a 50’s crooner and the guitar ability of a fine bluesman. He’s also a bit dickish, in a very amusing way. Noticing that everyone was staying in their seats he said that he would be happy if people came up to the front, and then he thanked the bloggers for getting it started as about five of us were taking pictures. He then gave each of us a pose.

Toward the end of Bahamas set was maybe the highlight of the whole evening. Afie was saying that after they were done he’d be out selling records and to come up and talk or ask him questions. Some genius in the crowd decided this was a good time to voice his query, which was “Who the hell are you?” Hardly missing a beat, Afie realized that he had never introduced the group and said, “We’re a semi-professional band so I didn’t think to tell you, but now I’m not going to. Go home and look it up on the internet.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that really cracked me up.

With the openers done for the night, it was time for the main event. Very recently I saw Michael Kiwanuka in an opening slot for Band Of Horses at Metro. The set was really solid, but lasted only 40 minutes. Curious to see what would be different for this night, I checked out the setlist that was on the stage in front of me. He played eight songs at Metro, and there were 11 on the list. All eight of the songs I’d seen, plus a couple extra. As always I hoped for the best, and went in with an open mind.

The Michael Kiwanuka that was headlining was a much looser one. He seemed to be enjoying it more this time, which pushed the set in a positive direction. After I saw him before, I revisited his album Home Again, which came out back in May. It’s a very pretty record that really pushes his amazing voice and the arrangements they created in the studio. The problem is, it doesn’t capture the same electricity that his songs have live. If you enjoy his music, by all means buy his record and listen to it all you want, but if you don’t see him in person you’re missing out.

I read recently that he’s been getting into more electric guitar stuff. He’s definitely been working on it, because he was better last night than he was only a month ago. If this continues we should have some really different stuff coming our way on the next album. And while the songs being played were mostly the same, he did change it up with the guitars a bit. His cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “This May Be Love (or “Waterfall” depending on who you ask) is a really great indicator of the kind of thing he is capable of doing.

My favorite song of the night came when everyone left the stage except Michael and his bass play Peter Randall for the original demo version of “Rest.” The lights pretty much all went dark and the spotlight rested itself firmly on Michael. While discussing why he wanted to play this version, he said that sometimes you get into the studio and new ideas come and it changes a little bit, but he wanted us to hear it the way he originally wrote it. He played the acoustic guitar, but let his voice do the majority of the work.

After that there were two more songs before the shows final song, a great sing-a-long version of Bill Withers’ “I Don’t Know.” There was an encore of “Company,” which I could not stick around for. The show went an hour and a half, so quite a bit longer than the Metro show. Much of that time allowed for more jamming with the band, and after seeing Prince and his band the night before I was all for that. Michael has some great musicians behind him. His guitar player, Miles, may just be the coolest man on the planet, and his percussionist Godfrey Graham seems to be able to play any instrument he touches.

I didn’t think I would notice any big changes between this show and the one I saw six weeks ago, but there is undeniable growth in his ability as a player and ease with the crowd. As he grows more musically and gets comfortable trying new things, I think every show will be a brand new experience, and I can’t wait for the next one.

For more pics from Michael Kiwanuka’s set, check out the album on our Facebook page!