Michael Kiwanuka’s brand of retro-soul music sounds nearly indistinguishable from the “real stuff” of the ’70s. Even the album cover for his debut, “Home Again” — a sepia-toned close-up of Kiwanuka gazing despondently into the lower middle ground — looks decidedly vintage.
Indeed, produced by the Bees’ Paul Butler, “Home Again” doesn’t bare the digital sheen of its fellow 2012 releases. Instead, as is typical of Butler-helmed projects, the album favors an organic approach that retains the type of sonic warmth typically confined to vinyl. Such was the case live at the Fox Theatre on Sunday night, where Kiwanuka played with a solid opener in Toronto’s Bahamas.
Kiwanuka is one of those rare artists that actually sounds better live than he does on the record. Despite the lack of vintage effect present on his debut, his performance on Sunday still managed to feel like a feature from the formative years of TV’s “Soul Train.” Whether it was due to the afro count (two) or his voice is hard to say, but the seemingly limiting constraints of the retro-soul genre did not hinder the show in the slightest. Indeed, with only one LP and a few EPs under his belt, there was little license for variety, but Kiwanuka and his fantastic backing band (including two percussionists, almost always an omen of promise) managed a long-form, jammy version of “Tell Me A Tale,” as well as a conversely tight new number titled “If You Dare.”
After many inebriated requests from the crowd, Kiwanuka did relent and play that titular song off of “Home Again,” but it was hardly the highlight of the evening (likely why he didn’t save it for his finale). Instead, he finished with “I Need Your Company,” a much lesser-known track that, while not known crowd-wide before its performance Sunday, was unforgettable after, as Kiwanuka had almost all of the audience singing the chorus until its conclusion.
Dylan Owens is a Boulder-based writer and a new contributor to Reverb.