When I first heard Janelle Monae several months ago and started to describe her music to friends and co-workers, I was left with a lot of strange looks.
Sure – it sounds a little weird to say that your favorite new thing on the IPod is “kind of hip-hop, but kind of neo-soul, but rocks a little, too” and even more so that it is a concept album about androids and time travel and destiny. I finally just started most conversations with this phrase: “You really just have to hear it…”
Turns out the same applies to Ms. Monae’s live performance: You really just have to see it.
Thrivals and Idea Festival presented the young performer Wednesday night at the Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater to an eager crowd curious to see what exactly an evening with this musical buzz act would turn into.
Fifteen minutes after announced starting time, what appeared to be an 11-piece high school drum line appeared on stage for a five minute pep session that instantly amped the energy. But as quickly as it had started, the drum performance ended and the house lights came back on for another five minutes. Finally, the lights went down again and a well-dressed man in a tuxedo (who was soon revealed to be a dancer/show coordinator of sorts for Monae) appeared at the microphone with a few instructions to the crowd.
“I want you to take the next minute to introduce yourself to the people on your right and on your left,” he commanded a bit like a ringmaster at a circus. “Because when you introduce yourself to the person you are going to act CRAZY next to, it makes the whole thing easier!” The crowd erupted and was led into a “I say ‘Janelle,’ you say ‘Monae’” chant as the ringmaster disappeared and an introduction video began on two large screens hanging on both sides of the stage.
It is at this point that things become a little hard to adequately explain.
Monae has taken the concepts of an arena-sized pop diva showcase and toyed and toned them to fit a venue the size of the Bomhard (roughly 700 capacity), consequently creating an amazingly intimate concert experience.
Monae and several dancers entered through the crowd in long black cloaks and danced into the VIP pit area by the stage for a verse before Monae suddenly unveiled herself in the spotlight by jumping up on top of a table, dropping her cloak and ferociously spitting the lyrics to “Dance or Die.” This was just the start of suite of songs that Monae and company sewed together, quickly turning the formal setting of the theatre into an afterthought. By the end of the first trio of songs, seating had been abandoned by at least half of the theater and the VIP pit full of tables was suddenly overflowing with people.
At different points throughout the short but exhaustingly energetic set, beach balls were rocketed into the audience, tambourine-playing dancers took to running up and down throughout the theater seating, and – on a slower number - Monae even painted a canvas and then passed her original artwork into the audience for someone to take home.
But the tales of the evening’s theatrics shouldn’t overshadow the impressive display of music. Apart from the crazy party being thrown, Monae and her 3-musician band (drums, guitar, and bass/keys/synths) oozed with a startling amount of talent that consistently kept in step with the expectations put forth on her critically-lauded “The ArchAndroid” album.
Monae’s voice is truly chameleon. The range of musical styles she covers calls for her to be at one moment a hip-hop emcee (the aforementioned “Dance or Die”), the next moment a crooner from a past generation (her cover of Charlie Chaplain’s “Smile”), and at times, a rock and roll riot girl (“Come Alive”). It would be enough if she could pull off any of these roles with mediocrity in the live setting, but the truth is that she nails every single one with striking authenticity. The level of execution is so high, in fact, that coupled with the aforementioned stage show, the Janelle Monae live experience sometimes plays more like a Broadway musical than a pop show.
After a little less than an hour, Monae and band whipped the crowd up with her current single “Tightrope” and then took their bows, retuning after a lengthy standing ovation to perform the punk-rock-tinged “Come Alive” for an encore. Here is where Monae literally let her trademark pinned-up pompadour hair down, tearing off the restraints she had pinning it up and letting it sling around in her face while she climbed up and ended the show where she had started – on top of a table in the middle of the audience.
Photo: Brian Eichenberger