Fast-rising British singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka kicked off his first headlining U.S. tour at New York’s Webster Hall Tuesday night with an hour-plus long set that mesmerized many in the capacity audience.
While the singer has played several shows in the area over the past nine months or so, his CherryTree/Interscope debut full-length, “Home Again,” was released Stateside just a few weeks ago, which makes the packed crowd – not to mention its rapt attentiveness – in a venue the size of the 1400-capacity Webster Hall all the more impressive, especially on a night that earlier endured a positively Biblical rainstorm that prevented us, sadly, from catching opening acts Foy Vance and Marcus Foster. Credit the fact that Kiwanuka has built a solid buzz Stateside with critical raves and high-profile slots at South by Southwest, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands and several other tour stops earlier in the year.
Kiwanuka has a soaring, powerful voice that he unleashes sparingly and skillfully – a lot of his songs are calm and quiet, a la Bill Withers or Terry Collier, which makes it all the more striking when he lets rip. His sound has an unusually wide appeal (as Ken Weinstein of Big Hassle, which is doing publicity for Kiwanuka in the U.S., said, “It’s an album you can give to a lot of different people”) — it’s soulful, folky and rootsy all at once, but in a live setting there’s an almost jam-band dimension that finds the band creating slow, steady grooves that build and build and build before pulling back. In addition to expanded versions of songs from “Home Again,” Kiwanuka played a beautiful version of Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love?” in observation of the 42nd anniversary of the legendary guitarist’s death.
In the house Tuesday night were Kiwanuka’s manager Robert Swerdlow of Starwood Entertainment, CherryTree chief Martin Kierszenbaum, Superfly’s Chad Isaacs, Red Light’s Jonathan Azu, Big Hassle’s Shira Knishkowy, RED’s Ava Ryerson, and many others. Chatter during the show included talk about the sale of AEG – news that it’s up for sale for a whopping $7 billion broke just before the show, and Universal’s proposed acquisition of EMI (which seems likely to be approved by the EU within the next couple of days) and how the offloaded assets will be a boon to the indie sector. But most of all people were talking about how beautifully Kiwanuka and the band were connecting with the audience – talking about it quietly, anyway (we were shushed several times during the show).
People also occasionally noted the fact that John Mayer, who played some beautifully tasteful guitar with Frank Ocean on the “Saturday Night Live” season opener over the weekend, was watching from the balcony VIP section, accompanied by his tour accountant Ina Jacobs.
Backstage after the show, Kiwanuka and Mayer chatted at length (we didn’t eavesdrop) while Kierszenbaum told us how pleased he is to be back at Interscope, raved about two new signings (Willy Moon, a New Zealander he described as “Bill Haley, David Byrne meshed with Beck and Public Enemy”; and R&B singer Jessie Ware, who, along with Kiwanuka, was recently nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize), and mentioned he’s got a couple of others he can’t disclose just yet, and, like a proud dad should, told us about the major role his 15-year-old son played in the design of the CherryTree app.
Later, he and Mayer – who was speaking in a tone just above a whisper, due to recent surgery on his vocal cords – traded highly informed notes on vocal-cord specialists. As is sometimes the case in backstage scenes, a lap-steel guitar just happened to be lying around. We said, “Hey John, do you know how to play that thing?” “Sure!” He obliged, beautifully, for a good five minutes, while Kiwanuka chatted with fans outside.