It’s been one hell of a month for Michael Kiwanuka. The full-throttle gallop of the North London songwriter’s ascent in just about nine months, from unknown session-guitarist-posting-songs-on-MySpace to one of the most praised, new British artists since Adele (who tapped Kiwanuka to tour with her this spring before he even released his first EP) is astounding. In just this past week, the 23-year-old Kiwanuka, who effortlessly and emotionally channels the simple, but sagacious groove of ’60s and ’70s soul masters like Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, landed on the BRIT’s Critics’ Choice shortlist and BBC’s longlist for the Sound of 2012. On Thursday, he seemed to have beguiled New York City as well, in not only his first gig there, but also his first visit to Manhattan.
Judging from the mostly music industry crowd, nursing $16 glasses of Cabernet and noshing on $12 deviled eggs in the newly-refurbished Joe’s Pub (the Public Theater’s eclectically-programmed side venue), Kiwanuka is assured a flurry of attention in the States when his debut album, Home Again, finally drops in late March. Representatives from NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Central Park Summerstage, NPR, Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival and many more reserved most of the tables in the intimate venue to appraise Kiwanuka’s short, but effective acoustic set, accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and bassist Peter Randall.
Not boldly confident, but thankfully not overtly nervous either, Kiwanuka confessed his happiness to be playing New York (his brother lives here). He offered a succinct introduction to each song in his set, as if at an audition (a shrewd assessment on his part), pulling mostly material from his EPs, from his very first release, the yearning beauty ‘Tell Me A Tale’ to the husky rumination of ‘Home Again’. One untitled new song made its way into the set, a melancholy track possibly from his upcoming album. With his warm, measured vocals, as refreshing as a gentle sea breeze in late July, Kiwanuka, in songs like the loping canter of ‘Bones’, commanded an impressive enthusiasm and focus from the industry-dominated crowd.
Although he fleetingly contemplated one barked request from the audience for his encore, briefly discussing the set shift with Randall, Kiwanuka instead leaned, likely wisely, on the man who has served as one of his major inspirations, covering Bill Withers’ wintery love song ‘I Don’t Know’. It was an appropriate send-off into this night’s chilly darkness for this earnest and promising songwriter who will likely, like his former tourmate Adele who played her debut New York gig in this very venue back in 2008, not play such small rooms for much longer.