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There are certain artists that are capable of turning a humdrum weekday gig into a genuine event, guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even the most hardened of gig goer. On her first visit to Bristol Janelle Monae proved that she’s got whatever that takes.

It’s clear from the outset that an evening with Ms Monae is akin to an old fashioned Soul Revue seen through the looking glass. Her imminent arrival is announced by a top-hatted hype man, bringing a touch of the vaudeville to proceedings whilst whipping the initially bemused crowd into shape. We are then treated to a recorded message from Monae informing us of the largely irrelevant and frankly silly science fiction backstory of current album The ArchAndroid. It’s the kind of touch that defines Monae and sets her apart from other acts of her ilk; a nerdy, over-reaching and knowingly frivolous flourish that puts her closer conceptually to David Bowie in his mid 70’s pomp than say, Rhianna.

Obviously the spectacle would come across as slightly hollow without the musical nous to back it up and Monae and her incredible backing band, the Wondaland crew (naturally), deliver. The mood shifts from muscular r’n’b to dreamy jazz and every which way else with ease; these are incredibly well-chosen, versatile musicians that make a mockery of genre distinctions. Monae herself is electric; a born performer who tears around the stage acting out lyrics, interacting with the audience and even at one particularly surreal point finding time to dabble in a spot of abstract act. Whilst it’s fairly safe to say that she’s no Picasso, what counts is her voice and from the jazz inflections of Smile to the aggression of Cold War she proved that she’s more than capable of bringing it live.

Whilst Monae is the undoubted star of the show, each member of the Wondaland Crew has more charm and star-quality in their tiniest appendage than most bands can muster put together. On stage right, a theatrical, preening guitar god doing things to his instrument that in less enlightened times may have had him charged with public indecency. Elsewhere, a powerhouse rhythm section and keyboard player who doubled up as a cheerleader kept the show together. That’s not to mention the cloaked backing dancers, either involved in spooky stare-outs or intense jitterbugging.

This being a Janelle Monae show everything looked incredible, from the most well-turned out roadies to ever tune a bass (The White Stripes infamously dapper road crew have nothing on this lot) to an ensemble of what must be some of the most gravity defying haircuts to ever share a Bristol stage. The road manager must have winced when presented with the hairspray bill for this tour.

Predictably, things reached fever pitch with Monae’s breakthrough hit Tightrope. A thrilling, almost punky take that saw Monae channelling James Brown and leaving the audience baying for more, which they duly received. It was a rare privilege to see a show this accomplished in a relatively small venue, bigger things surely beckon.

Words: Jamie Atkins
Photo: Joe Mabel via Wikimedia
Video: Yatin Amin