Roundhouse, London, Saturday, September 14
Janelle Monáe’s got her work cut out tonight. Half the crowd’s only coming for Nile Rodgers & Chic’s headline set, and those who have made it into the Roundhouse for the 27-year-old don’t seem up for getting funky before 8pm. Their loss. Pocket sci-fi R&B dynamo Monáe is warbling and dancing her minuscule shoes off to get everyone in the mood.
The initial lukewarm response is a puzzle. It’s not as if Monáe doesn’t put on a show, from the MC gamely trying to pump up the crowd to the James Bond-style visuals that accompany opener ‘Suite II Overture’. By ‘Sincerely, Jane’, Monáe has resorted to murdering hooded backing dancers with a giant lollipop stick. Gradually all her moonwalking and microphone-flinging – it’s launched into the audience at least twice – starts to take effect, and by the time the hyperactive rock’n’soul of ‘Tightrope’ rears up, some people are even shuffling their feet. By then they’ve missed out on the ecstatic, coordinated moves of ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ and given the blasé face to a note-perfect cover of The Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’, but ‘QUEEN’ (sadly without album guest Erykah Badu) has twerked them out of their torpor.
Whatever the atmosphere, Monáe never lets up. There’s JB, Prince, Michael Jackson and Cabaret’s Sally Bowles in that microscopic frame.
Tonight’s show is light on the future disco-funk of new album ‘The Electric Lady’, but Monáe gives it some thrust for the euphoric title track and gets a round of call-and-response going, even prompting a shout-out to “The United States of America!” Monáe’s in such command when closer ‘Come Alive (The War Of The Roses)’ comes around that she can make the entire crowd sit down.
The band may be tightly drilled – synchronised dance steps, matching outfits – and Monáe a ball of perpetual activity, but there’s still space for spontaneity. With minutes to go, Monáe’s sufficiently confident she’s got these corpses on side with her dazzling display that she launches herself into the pit and cruises over their hands, not missing a note. It’s been damned hard work, but ultimately talent prevails.