Live Review: Michael Kiwanuka, Ainslie Wills

20 April 2017 | 2:30 pm | Guido Farnell

"There is certain grit to Kiwanuka's impassioned vocals that makes what he is singing about feel very real."

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Ainslie Wills provides a gentle start to the evening. Accompanying herself on the piano she exudes a thoughtful but quiet presence that's just classy. Wills' soft, intimate vocals are wrapped around delicate melodies. She plays a mix of tunes from her Oh The Gold EP and some unreleased material, although she tells us that she shouldn't make any distinctions since it's probably all new to us. Long-time collaborator Lawrence Folvig joins Wills to strum his guitar. Although delivered with understated cool, Constellations is a dreamy song with lyrical observation that run deep.

The small stage at Corner Hotel looks cramped as it's prepared for Michael Kiwanuka and his band. In a very short time on the back of just two albums, Kiwanuka seems to have amassed a huge following. His sweet soul sounds have attracted an all ages crowd who have sold the show out. 

He kicks off with cascading synth strings and an atmospheric guitar solo before sliding into Cold Little Heart. Right from the start it is clear that while Kiwanuka has mastered applying a slick veneer of soul, the arrangements suggest a multitude of influences. At times the guitars drift into dreamy Pink Floyd territory, but as the show progresses it becomes clear that there is an underlying funk to all of Kiwanuka's tunes.

The mix feels incredibly earthy and a little rootsy. There is a certain grit to Kiwanuka's impassioned vocals that makes what he is singing about feel very real. Black Man In A White World, with its repetitive afrobeat stomp, is a highlight and recalls Nina Simone's Sinnerman. Meanwhile, Rest has a vulnerable sound, Kiwanuka and his band dealing some very lonesome country-soul vibes that have the crowd aching for more.

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As the crowd gets to know Kiwanuka's band it seems that the bass player quickly finds favour with many young ladies, who cheer him on. Through the set, Kiwanuka's guitarist, who sports a huge afro, lets rip some wild Hendrix-style guitar solos that has him shredding it up and down the fret board with ease. While Kiwanuka deals vintage soul and funk vibes that come with references that feel somewhat historical, these tunes move beyond genre convention to convey heartfelt emotion that feels genuine and lived.

Kiwanuka leaves out the cover of Prince's Sometimes It Snows In April that he usually plays live, but an energetic extended version of Love & Hate brings tonight's set to an end in fine style.