Four years ago, at the age of 25, North Londoner Michael Kiwanuka became the ninth person to take the BBC Sound Of… crown for his timeless folk and soul, following in the steps of Adele, Ellie Goulding and 50 Cent, and beating competitors like Frank Ocean, Azealia Banks and Skrillex. His next steps included an album, ‘Home Again’, that reached Number Four in the UK chart and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. It’s perhaps the winners following Kiwanuka that show him up as even more of an extraordinary choice by comparison – poppier artists like Sam Smith, Jack Garratt and Years & Years – who play today too, albeit on a bigger stage – have since been given the title.
Chart success and reaching the Radio 1 playlist seem of little interest to Kiwanuka during his drizzly Glastonbury performance at West Holts Stage on Sunday (June 26). There’s still broad appeal to his music – confirmed by a sizeable crowd that sticks it out despite the rain – but he’s interested in is pure virtuosity over pop hooks.
The set opens with a lengthy instrumental called ‘Cold Little Heart’, initiated by Kiwanuka’s synth player, with the rest of the band trickling in as and when they’re needed, the steady groove becoming more and more complex. It’s music for us to soak up rather than music to shake us up, and it sets the tone for what follows.
Alternating from electric guitar to an acoustic guitar three songs into the set, he brings out his most recognisable song, ‘Tell Me A Tale’, which becomes a jam session to which the crowd are invited to join in, and the musicianship on display is undeniable. The bassline’s cascading melodies, in particular, are astonishing. The lack of chat from Kiwanuka just highlights his playing and brilliantly husky singing.
The next high point comes with ‘Black Man In A White World’, a song from his new album ‘Love & Hate’ – produced by Inflo and out soon. Similarly elongated, the song is a signal that Kiwanuka’s music is evolving, ready to address weightier topics and reach new listeners.