At mxdwn, we consider the Hollywood Bowl our unofficial home away from home. Last year ended with a bang, The xx deftly demonstrating the eye-opening power of precision simplicity. This year’s season of shows (and the first of the annual KCRW sponsored World Music Festival shows here) opened with a headlining set from Janelle Monae. We previously saw Janelle Monae practically steal the show at a star-studded soul event headlined by Stevie Wonder. Not surprisingly, Monae has only grown in popularity since that show, largely on the strength of her recent album The Electric Lady. This is without a doubt, her single biggest headlining show in the USA to date in her career. Could Monae live up to the pressure and deliver on a performance fitting the stature, acclaim and legendary status of the venue?
Frequent Monae collaborator Roman GianArthur had the opening slot on tonight’s show. GianArthur is an impressively talented guitarist and singer. The biggest negative is that he plays a somewhat derivative form of R&B-based funk rock. It’s not that it’s bad per se; only that it’s very hard to bring anything to the genre that hasn’t been perfected thirty years ago. Most confusing considering how gifted an axe man he is, is that some elements of his backing accompaniment were piped in over the loud speakers. Not everyone can tour with a large backing band, but if you can really play like GianArthur does is it necessary to can in backing vocals and keyboards? Still, his skill alone made the set worth watching. Before the set was done, he worked in covers of Radiohead’s “High and Dry” (done in a more jazzy style) and a rocking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
Second generation performer Seun Kuti (son of legendary afrobeat singer/bandleader Fela Kuti) and mini orchestra Egypt 80 came next. The backing group who famously performed with his father before his passing, informed the audience how grateful they were to be playing here and how they were going to do their best to put on a good show. Living up to the name and reputation of Kuti’s namesake, they did exactly that, working hard to put on a lively set filled with party power politics. The thirteen-piece backing band set the tempo and rhythm on opening numbers “Dog Eat Dog” and “VIP” while Kuti frenetically danced, shook and sang slogans, occasionally peppering the arrangement with blasts of alto sax. “African Smoke” was particularly energetic, the band working the song out to an elongated crescendo. The call of “I see the smoke rising from” and its response “African fire” punctuated each successive meter. Kuti deserves all the credit possible for putting his heart into his performance, but it’s hard to thoroughly enjoy this without an already ingrained affinity for the style of music. No matter how good the groove, the songs tend to lock into it, rather than mutate or change from it, making for a slightly overly repetitive framework.
The set changeover indicated that Monae and her entire band would be decked out in matching white attire. The band took the stage first, playing a series of instrumental numbers. “O Introduction to Palace of the Dogs” and “Suite IV Electric Overture” all appropriately–and epically–set the tone for the show to come. Monae entered the arena, hair up in her trademark vaulted conical style. The show proper began with “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love” which Monae used as an opportunity to extol that song’s message as her theme for the night, giving the audience they truly love and want: enjoyment. Recent single “Dance Apocalyptic” followed suit, centering on the song’s freight train pace and manic chorus of verbal wordplay. One negative in this configuration of Monae’s band was the overuse (and all-too-highly EQ’d placement) of her guitarist Kellindo Parker’s accompaniment. Parker is a tremendously talented guitarist, but Monae’s music doesn’t seem to beg for highly distorted bar chords or every-other-song mega solos. Most likely, this placement in the arrangement was a choice made to add more bombast to the set’s songs, but it just overpowered the subtly of Monae’s overall sonic tapestry.
First single of her recent album The Electric Lady “Q.U.E.E.N.” took the show’s energy into more danceable territory, emphasizing Monae’s effortless melodic phrasing. While the first few songs didn’t quite have the crowd engaged, the extended take on “Electric Lady” finally found the pulse of the room. Monae dedicated the song to all the “electric ladies,” much to the female attendees’ delight. Also, this was the number where she used her immense vocal skill to its best effect without excessively pushing each note out. “Victory” she introduced by stating, “To be victorious in anything you must find glory in the little things.” Before the set’s final portion, she worked in a medley of Jackson 5 covers, mixing “I Want You Back” with “ABC.” This brought the crowd to its feet for the first time on the night.
The strongest two songs of her catalog came in succession next. “Cold War” showed off the most sincere and passionate usage of Monae’s voice, and “Tightrope” again exhibited her tremendous melodic finesse. The night’s more eye-popping surprise immediately followed, as Monae exited stage right to return arm-in-arm with Stevie Wonder. Center stage Monae and Wonder took turns singing various melodies from James Brown’s “I Feel Good” to an explosive reaction from the crowd. She also allowed Wonder a chance to do a keyboard solo before the song’s conclusion. She followed that surprise with “PrimeTime,” dedicating it to all the lovers or couples in attendance. In a fitting completion of the trifecta of her influences, she closed out the show with a slightly sped up cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”
There’s no denying Monae’s talent and drive. She’s a fascinating performer, and she put every ounce of her energy into this show. There was scarcely a moment where she was standing still the entire time. She sang her heart out through each song. While fun that she included covers from of her greatest influences, it almost felt like it took focus away from her own supremely strong material. It helps to provide highlights for the event, but this being the first massive headlining show of her career to date, it almost warranted putting all of the emphasis into demonstrating why she deserved to be in a headlining spot. Somehow this didn’t ring out as the shining example of Janelle Monae’s ascendance to the top of the music industry. Still, this was an extremely enjoyable show that put the best facets of dance, vocals and true performance as the focal point. There was no pretentious unwillingness to allure the crowd into having the best time possible, and every moment was about putting forth an entertaining event. In a day and age where most acts seem to struggle with the mere notion of entertaining their fans, that alone was worth the price of admission.