Michael Kiwanuka Impresses At Exeter Phoenix

by Hope Claydon


“I’ve never been to Exeter before,” admits Michael Kiwanuka, somewhat sheepishly, towards the end of his set at Phoenix last Thursday. “…I had a walk around earlier, it’s really nice. Admittedly it was mainly because the power on my tour bus went so I couldn’t play FIFA…”

Kiwanuka’s first time here it was - but judging from the size of his audience, it was a long-awaited show. It was completely sold-out, in fact; I arrived 15 minutes before start-time to find Phoenix’s auditorium already completely packed. Squeezing in amongst a room full of gig-goers, I found a spot as near to the middle as a couple of “sorry, do you mind if I come through?”’s could get me before taking a moment to absorb the surroundings. The auditorium’s stage was dimly-set, cast in pools of faded purple and blue light; on the curtain behind, Kiwanuka’s name was printed in emboldened letters.

Minutes later, his backing musicians strolled onto stage - Kiwanuka himself not yet in sight - and immediately jumped into the opening chords of the (just shy of) 10-minute-epic Cold Little Heart, not pausing to acknowledge the cheering audience waiting for them. The crowds quickly settled down from their excited applause as the reverberations of the choral backing vocals, playing overhead through the speakers, echoed over them; and as the music began to build - bass and drums in turn starting to chime in - so did the atmosphere. The audience were waiting with bated breath, so that by the time of Kiwanuka’s arrival on stage a few minutes in (just before the song’s first verse), bashful smile in tow, he was greeted by ravenous applause: “…Bleeding, I’m bleeding / my cold little heart / oh I, I can’t stand myself…”

Emotive stuff. And made all the more heartfelt by the husky, raw emotion pouring out of his vocals - god, what a voice. He’s only 29-years-old, but Kiwanuka sings like he’s from another time, with all the wisdom of a thousand years’ worth of life experience. Though a lot of the crowd seemed to know most the words to every song in his set (evident from all the miming along going on around me), most opted to let him do the actual singing - no one can do it like he can. It would have just been embarrassing.

Although the emphasis was placed on his recently released second album, Kiwanuka played songs from both Love and Hate and his 2012 debut. Hearing the haunting Tell Me A Tale live was a set highlight, as well as Love and Hate’s toe-tapping title track - and the audience switched from swaying to outright dancing around when the set peeled into Black Man In A White World, the lead single from his last album. But then again, Kiwanuka could have sung Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (truly one of the worst songs ever, FYI) over and over for the whole show and I probably would have loved it. Did I mention I like his voice?

It was a fantastic night and a great show - and so encouraging to see such talent making its way to Exeter rather than a little further afield (I’d normally expect to be in Bristol to be reviewing this kind of name). It may have been his first gig here, but here’s hoping we’ll see him back soon.