Michael Kiwanuka is riding a wave into America and there is no stopping him. After gaining a decent following in England, he got a nudge into the spotlight when Adele invited him to fill the opening slot on her tour of Britain. Clearly a nudge was all he needed. Kiwanuka has an uncannily pure voice, and unlike so many with great voices, his songwriting is excellent and allows his voice to shine.
Last night at the Highline Ballroom, it was an evening of sweet voices. The opening act, Bahamas, consisted of Toronto-based songwriter Afie Jurvanen and two wonderful female backup singers. Due to technical difficulties, the band was forced to play a purely acoustic set, yet the songs adapted so well that they seemed right at home on Jurvanen’s acoustic guitar. Despite very odd stage banter that involved asking an audience member about spring rolls, the concise set was fantastic. Jurvanen’s guitar work was intricate and when the backup singers took the lead role for their final song, they pulled more than their own weight. It did exactly what any opening set is supposed to do: it piqued my interest.
When Kiwanuka took the stage, he looked at home right away. His setlist was varied, lively, and included most of his debut album, Home Again as well as a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love (Waterfall).” Truly a charming entertainer, Kiwanuka ran through the set with grace. His talking points between songs were genuinely interesting, funny, and helpful for understanding why he chose to play what songs he did. Although he was sweating visibly, his voice sounded effortless, as if it was as easy as talking for him.
Backed by a fabulous band, he jammed out on “Tell Me A Tale,” expanding the jazzy number to include lengthy guitar and drum solos. A few songs later, he took the stage by himself, to play “I’m Getting Ready” just how it was written, alone with a guitar. While his voice was impeccable throughout the set, it seemed to have a little something extra on “Worry Walks Beside Me,” a track that pushes his voice a little louder than usual. Another standout was the fantastic group dynamic during the swingy number, “Bones.” With an incredibly tight drummer and virtuosic guitarist backing him up, Kiwanuka’s talent was given an additional boost.
As I was leaving the show, I realized that Kiwanuka had such a casually brilliant voice that it would feel equally appropriate at a campfire as on a stage. That relaxed quality in his voice was also present in his entire demeanor and performance. It broke down the performer-audience barrier and made me feel as if he would be extremely easy to have a conversation with. If everybody else in the crowd felt as good as I did, Kiwanuka will be riding his wave for a very long time.