This might very well have been Janelle Monae’s most significant week in Europe since the release of debut album, The Archandroid. A stunning performance on the West Holts stage at Glastonbury saw her sales on Amazon UK rise by just under 5,000% (a multiple of seven, incidentally, of the increase Beyonce pulled off through her performance at the same festival), finally bringing the Kansas singer something resembling the mainstream recognition fawning critics have long expected her to obtain. Even reports of her somewhat diva-esque demands for 1,200 chicken wings as part of her recent tour’s rider can’t put a downer on stats like that.
Tonight’s Tripod show highlights some significant development since Monae’s early-in-the-day Electric Picnic set last September, but – set list and performance wise – is unsurprisingly similar to that rapturously-received Glastonbury performance. Her intro is all cabaret theatrics, with an MC in a top hat hyping-up the crowd, before Monae opens with ‘Dance Or Die’, hidden as the middle of three dancers in shadowy black capes. The Tripod stage probably hasn’t been this rammed since the Dublin Gospel Choir dropped in: there are at least 15 different musicians and entertainers involved in the ‘ArchOrchestra’, from keyboard and trumpet players to half a dozen dancers. Every one of Janelle’s backing performers struts, leaps and generally adds their own little something to an act that’s bursting at the seams with energy.
Live, Monae mixes tracks from her well-respected debut with a handful of vibrant covers, including The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’. There’s an argument for the covers being the set highlights, but with the swinging, genre-hopping vibe Monae’s able to create with her own material, the rap-ish intro to ‘Tightrope’ and the more soulful vibe of memorable hit ‘Faster’ sit perfectly amongst it all. It’s a huge compliment to Janelle, but compare the quality of her own efforts live to the covers mentioned above, and the difference really isn’t all that great. She’s certainly become stronger live than on record.
Tonight’s stage setup is really designed for a monstrous arena. There’s an array of on-stage theatrics that even a certain Stefani Germanotta might envy, and Monae stands in the heart of it all, channelling a procession of superstar singers. She does soul, R&B, pop and even a slight edge of girl-rap, fusing her shambolic array of styles into a beautifully coherent whole. During ‘Sincerely, Jane’, her dancers don death marks and rise and fall from the stage floor like puppets on strings, acting out slow, ghostly movements with Monae trapped between their swaying arms. She might indulge in the odd costume change, but it’s all done with capes and masks on stage, with Janelle flitting from looking like that android on the cover of her album to a far more down-to-earth cabaret singer.
The tours following the release of ‘Archandroid’ have always been flamboyant, theatrical and entertaining, but the addition of such a substantial band pushes tonight’s performance from the realms of the boisterous and very danceable, right into one of the top live shows we’ve come across so far in 2011. The vocals rarely stutter, and the odd ‘layered too deep’ piece of mixing is quickly overrun by the sheer quality and variety of Monae’s voice, and the utter madness that’s going on relentlessly behind her. Every song has its theme, every member their place and every action its well thought out story. Even the confetti shower, traditionally saved for a finale, is launched pre-encore, coating the venue in paper perfectly in line with one of her biggest party moments.
Amazingly, there were a handful of tickets on the door tonight. When the word of this show spreads, expect Janelle Monae and her exuberant cast of orchestral modern soul-ites to face a ticket demand that’s increased by almost as much as her sales have. She might, finally, be on the way to the mainstream status we all expected when the debut came out just over a year ago.
Photos: Sara Devine
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