Tonight has been a long time coming for Michael Kiwanuka. Following the release of his self-titled third album in November 2019, he was forced to cancel his initial run of shows in March 2020 due to illness, and a pandemic-induced touring pause then held this UK tour in limbo for two-and-a-half years. Celebrations for his Mercury Prize-winning album had to wait and he duly mumbles a sincere thanks to the 10,000-strong Alexandra Palace crowd for sticking around for his return.
It’s a fitting scene, too, given that we’re just a stone’s throw from where he grew up in Muswell Hill, situated at the bottom of the snaking route up to London’s highest venue: “Growing up, I didn’t even know there was a venue up here; we’d just skate around the park until we got chucked out,” he says of his teenage self.
Patience and consideration have long played a crucial part in his story. An earnest debut album (2012’s ‘Home Again’) gave way to gnarlier experimentation (2016’s ‘Love & Hate’) and by the time he reached his self-titled third album, he produced the best songs of his career, where psych-rock nestled up to ‘70s soul. It aptly warranted its instant-classic tag, and proved that our most promising artists thrive when they can create at their own pace, and on their own terms.
He provides one final agonising wait, though: tonight’s opening number ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love’) begins with a gentle thud on the kick drum, and Kiwanuka goes largely a capella to a patient audience. It’s so quiet, you can hear the emptying of glasses at the bar, as light still streams through the venue’s glass ceiling. It’s a trick he repeats on ‘Rest’, a Bill Withers-style number; at no point does he ask for silence, but simply commands it.
The show oscillates between this tenderness and the electricity. Kiwanuka is an unlikely rock hero – his voice gritty and stage presence reserved – but he proves you don’t have to be a Harry Styles-type gyrating on stage to hang with the best of them. ‘You Ain’t The Problem’s rock’n’soul is accompanied by a last of Vegas-style blast of lights and ‘Living In Denial; is similarly euphoric, even if the approach is to just play the song and let the chips fall where they may.
It’s the quieter, more drawn-out moments that linger the longest. The one-two punch of ‘Light’ and ‘Solid Ground’ ends with strobe lights and Kiwanuka, alone, sat at the keyboards in a trance-like state. It’s the kind of live moment that you could live in forever, a stasis between this moment and the next. But after the period we’ve waited to hear these songs in a venue as large as this – and Kiwanuka himself waiting his whole career for a gig on home turf – it tastes all the sweeter. This is an artist at the peak of his powers and, most excitingly, you sense he could even exceed them.
Michael Kiwanuka played:
‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’
‘One More Night’
‘You Ain’t the Problem’
‘I’ve Been Dazed’
‘Black Man in a White World’
‘Rule the World’
‘Hard to Say Goodbye’
‘Living in Denial’
‘Cold Little Heart’
‘Love & Hate’