Judging by the instrument setup on stage, you could have guessed what sort of music Kiwanuka would be playing: congas prominently pushed to the front of the stage, a classic sparkle drum kit reminiscent of something Ringo might play, an organ and handful of acoustic and electric guitars with stained wood-grain finish. Santana could have waltzed out of a time machine and begun playing at any minute.
Michael Kiwanuka and five other musicians crowded the instrument-packed stage, however, and without any introduction launched into their set. Already-familiar chords of his newish single, "I'll Get Along", filled the room, hushing a crowd made up largely of couples -- so many folks on dates to see Kiwanuka, which makes sense: His folk-pop music seems geared toward them, and they ate it up.
Kiwanuka, dressed smartly in a denim shirt and confidently wielding a Telecaster, tore through a lesser-known number, "You'll Give Everything but Love," one of the few songs from last night not on his debut album. He occasionally looked up from his guitar, appearing genuinely surprised. If there was an ounce of pretension in Kiwanuka or his band, it was not apparent. Few musicians seem as excited to see their fans as Kiwanuka was to see his last night at the Bluebird.
The rest of the set mostly included songs from Home Again: "Tell Me a Tale," "Always Waiting," and the best tune on the album, "I'm Getting Ready." Most were augmented slightly, stretched into jams that featured no virtuoso musicianship, but instead just six guys digging their own chord progressions. There were occasional jazz touches, indicative of Kiwanuka's formal training at the University of Westminster. Bill Frisell's influence was in there, too.
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But thankfully, there were no barn-burning, amp-toppling rages. Guitar shredding is not in this band's vocabulary, nor should it be: Hearing Kiwanuka's voice alone is an experience that could stop traffic. The London native, whose parents immigrated from Uganda, has been compared to Bill Withers and Terry Callier, and rightly so; a soul singer with folk influences, he has a similar wide-ranging, easygoing appeal.
By all indications, Kiwanuka felt at home in Denver. His band had spent the day here, stopping by a nearby coffee shop, where he handed out free passes to the show. Between songs, which included a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love," Kiwanuka mentioned that he drank a pint of beer earlier in the day and, thanks to the elevation, he was about drunk from it.
In a post-show chat with Kiwanuka at Lost Lake Lounge, he said he hopes to visit Red Rocks. This is his first-ever West Coast tour, and he wants to take in as much out here as possible. "Yeah, I want to see all the sites while I'm out here," said Kiwanuka, who just turned 25 and is touring the entirety of America for the first time. In an industry that often rewards arrogance and bad behavior in general, Kiwanuka's bright-eyed outlook is inspiring.
Personal Bias: Kiwanuka's hot-new-thing status (an opening slot on Adele's tour; a recent feature on NPR) had me suspicious of whether he could deliver the goods in concert. Thankfully, he did.
Random Note: Kiwanuka has perhaps the most humble merch table I've ever seen. No tote bags. No bumper stickers. Just a handwritten note that says "Michael Kiwanuka CDs - $10."
By the Way: Nathaniel Rateliff, fresh off his tour with Mumford & Sons, will be playing gigs with Michael Kiwanuka in October.
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