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Midweek Intermission – Janelle Monáe live at Aviva Studios Manchester, 2nd July

With Scandinavia going on its summer holidays for the next six weeks I reckoned it was time to take in a non-Nordic gig or two. Janelle Monáe played Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl in 2019 and should have been a major part of the International Festival last year before cancelling. I missed her 2019 slot. Just the one song of hers that the BBC showed from her Glastonbury set was enough to convince me to put that right.

She was here for the first of a three night residency at Manchester’s Aviva Studios, the home to Factory International and of which it’s acoustically perfect ‘Hall’ has the biggest stage I’ve ever seen – high enough for Peter Pan to have flown around as an extra in her expansive, ambitious live show and making Glastonbury’s two puny main stage efforts look like a lean-to and a bus shelter.

I don’t pretend to know too much about her and I opted to go along with little in the way of prepping. A Janelle virgin, if you will.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first; there’s only one. Namely that she is a conceptual artist and the main show was presented in four parts, each as a ‘chapter’, which I assume relate directly or indirectly to individual albums or how she has lived her life, or a combination thereof, or something else entirely.

I got the impression that the final ‘chapter’ was environmentally oriented but there was so much going on it was hard to keep up.

And that’s the problem. The fans might well ‘get’ all of it but it goes straight over the head of everyone else.

The band often makes the difference with any solo performer and hers were all top class artists, session people I guess, in their own right and almost exclusively female (what’s that about female musicians not getting enough exposure?); a guitarist, bassist, drummer, trumpeter and trombonist (is that the correct word, I can’t say tromboner can I?), along with a couple of dancers. Interestingly, no keys, although that had no adverse effect on the wall of sound they created.

I got the feeling that at least some of them are from a jazz background, especially the classy drummer. Janelle’s style is hard to pigeonhole and she’s famously shape -shifted from album to album. It embraces R&B, hip-hop, pop (the song ‘Pynk’ is a perfect example), soul and a tiny bit of rap but I couldn’t detach myself from an underlying jazz vibe that permeated much of the set and the entirety of the first half hour.

She’s the sum of many parts but she does have a jazz background after all and it amused me that some of her fans, or androids as she might still call them (better than Gaga’s ‘Little Monsters’), rapturously applauded that section while they probably wouldn’t be seen dead slumming it with a pint of bitter and a pizza and listening to similarly jazzy vibes in Matt & Phred’s.

The traditional tuxedo wardrobe was not so much in evidence, just for the most part (perhaps that should be the least part), a figure hugging black leotard outfit that ended sharply at the crotch.

She cuts a fine figure; more like 28 than 38. She may be only five feet tall but has a terrific trimmed body, an impressive booty and boy does she know how to shake it, oh so subtly.

Pardon me while I insert a Wiki quote here because it says it all. It is related to rapper Sean Combs (Diddy), much in the news for all the wrong reasons of late but who effectively ‘found’ Janelle Monáe:

“He loved her look, loved that you couldn’t see her body, loved the way she was dancing, and just loved the vibe. He felt like she had something that was different – something new and fresh.”

Well you could certainly see her body tonight (and speaking of female exposure we even got a quick flash of a left breast at one point, to the biggest cheer of the night but I have no idea why she did that).

The remainder of the Combs quote is perfectly on point. I’d anticipated something like a hybrid of Gaga, Madonna and Beyoncé, perhaps even Cardi B, but what Janelle offers is unique.

She flounced onstage, with a wonderfully clear full screen backdrop of her courtesy of multiple cameras that remained throughout the set, poking out of every orifice and peering into some as well, looking like she’d just been delivered by Interflora directly into the Rio de Janeiro carnival. The girl from Ipanema, via Kansas City.

The pace of the opening half hour was relentless. I was out of breath just watching it. I assume they must bike it between gigs, they’re so fit. She/they (not a pronoun malfunction) flounced through hit after hit – ‘Float’, ‘Champagne Shit’, ‘Phenomenal’, ‘Haute’, ‘Django Queen’ like a hurricane and there was barely a spare second in which notes and chords weren’t being played.

Her style is very cinematic too, a combination of vocal effects, the all-embracing musical sound and the visual imagery.

Then there are little phrases that will pop up on screen as she sings them like “Dance ’cause there ain’t nobody else in this bitch like you” that drive the audience wild.

As the show progressed it started to calm down a little. It had to. Imagine Georgia defending like mad against ticky-tacky Spain for 90 minutes, chasing shadows and trying to catch them out with lung bursting counter attacks. They’d be exhausted and so would Janelle have been here.  

From Chapter III (T[high] Vibrations) onwards, it entered into a more restrained, almost lovey-dovey period, in which the balladic ‘Lipstick Lover’ was delivered very sexily.

During ‘Paid in Pleasure’ she invited random audience members up on stage to natter and dance to the point where it was overflowing; an example of ‘empowering’ people, of ‘being yourself’ a declaration of which had already appeared right at the start of the set on screen in Chapter I – ‘A thousand versions of the self’. It is clearly a subject close to her heart.

Unfortunately, the vagaries of the local transport system meant I couldn’t stay around for what turned out to be two lengthy encores but I had seen enough to know that this is a special artist.

She acts her stories and observations as much as she sings them but not in a way that is as evident as with so many singer/dancer/actress/models – it’s more understated than that and she does possess real quality in her ability to do it, she isn’t merely going through the motions.

Allied to that is the fact she is a little bundle of kinetic energy who simply doesn’t stop moving, as if she’s running off Duracell batteries.

I was left with two lingering puzzles. Firstly, why her set seems to run in reverse. Even if it is laid out by ‘chapter’ it would make more sense if it started off fairly slowly and then built up to the climax which in actuality comes first. That would be off the register.

Secondly, why did Dua Lipa and SZA headline Glastonbury when this lady was pawned off with a teatime post-Shania afternoon spot and virtually zero media attention?

Her tour continues with two more nights at Manchester (3rd and 4th July), then on into Europe and concluding with two dates in the US in September as things stand now. (See website for details).

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