It’s an hour before Janelle Monáe is due to take to the stage at Dublin’s Tripod venue and State is worried. Purple lightning has just streaked across the sky, deafening thunder has threatened to smash windows and there is nearly two feet of (still falling) snow outside the front door. This is not a night for going out to any old gig – but it’s Janelle Monáe we’re off to see, and even a snowpocalypse won’t stop us now.
2010 has been a storming year for Monáe, the Kansas-born multi-talented performer who released her debut full length album, The ArchAndroid Suites II and III, to universal acclaim in May. On this, her second visit to Dublin (her previous trip involved two gigs in one day at the Electric Picnic festival), she is celebrating her 25th birthday. It has been a year of relentless touring, press and hobnobbing with fashion designers like Karl Lagerfeld, so there is a slight worry that perhaps her show might not differ much from her last performance. Is there much more she can give to Irish audiences? And will many people brave the elements to get to Tripod?
Thankfully, the answer to these questions is a resounding “hell, yes!” In front of a jam-packed, hyped-up audience, she is welcomed onstage by a grinning band member clad in top and tails, who rouses the energy in the already buzzing crowd like a circus ringmaster. The show is opened with a video of Monáe in her Metropolis-esque headpiece, telling us about the origin of Cindi Mayweather, the protagonist of her Metropolis EP and The ArchAndroid…. In a nod to afrofuturism, Cindy represents the idea of the ‘other’ in society and, we are told, has been sent down to earth to restore unity and balance in the form of Janelle Monáe. Whether that concept has any impact on the audience makes no odds. It’s clear that Cindi/Janelle is here to make us dance, and that’s all we’re asking for after trudging through snow for half an hour in wellies.
The opening section of Monáe’s set is a track-by-track playing of the first four songs on The ArchAndroid…, which is broken by a heartbreaking cover of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’. Gone are the brass players, the keyboardist and drummers. Backed by her charismatic guitarist, Monáe shows that she doesn’t just shine when she’s backed by oodles of instruments. With a voice that could break even the toughest robot’s heart, this preternaturally talented woman is a refreshing change from over-hyped pop stars who couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag, even with the aid of their good friend Auto-Tune.
Although the set suffers from a few unexplained breaks, there is thankfully no major lag in momentum. There’s no indication that people are here just for the hits – ‘Cold War’ and ‘Tightrope’ – but when they are played, it feels like the greatest New Year’s Eve party ever. The audience are pumped to see Monáe, and there’s a wonderful moment when the crowd sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to her as her band bring on a birthday cake. But it’s back to business soon after – and even a later trip into the crowd is perfectly orchestrated to keep Monáe safe.
Though she is ever the professional, the one moment where it feels as though she has broken through the slick veneer is when she paints an unexpected and sensual silhouette of a woman’s back on a large canvas during ‘Mushrooms & Roses’. It’s an interesting glimpse into the psyche of a performer who, for all her otherworldliness and refusal to conform to the expectations generally placed on female popstars, is calm and controlled at all times. Even her trademark pompadour barely moves during the set.
On a night when it feels like the world could collapse under a crystalline weight, Janelle Monáe is the perfect woman to offer us refuge from our troubles. Slinking across the Tripod stage, she provides us with an escape into a neon-bright world where androids cavort in underground nightclubs and where we have no choice but to dance or die. If life is about tipping on the tightrope, we’re with her every step of the way.
Photos: Damien McGlynn.
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