Five years since Michael Kiwanuka last took the stage in Glasgow and a long silent four since his Mercury Prize-nominated album ‘Home Again’, it feels like he is talking about something more than just his return to Scotland when he tells the Art School crowd, “This has been a long time coming”. No question, he’s come back in style, already accruing a second Mercury Prize nod for his sophomore album ‘Love & Hate’ amidst a storm of critical acclaim. Kicking off the album’s tour with this Glasgow night, he seems re-energised and excited to be on the road again, laughing easily with the crowd and clearly thrilled to find that in his absence, his fans’ hearts really have only grown fonder.
It turns out to be one of those gigs where there seems to be someone at the door waiting for the support to end before yelling “Come on everybody, that other dude’s done! The guy we paid for is up! Familiarity!!!” and then everyone comes piling in minutes before the main act starts. Weird. So Isaac Gracie has to settle for an Art School populated only by the handful of strays who turned up early, a potentially awkward situation he immediately diffuses with the smiling, soft-spoken suggestion that everybody ‘feel free to congregate in the middle’ rather than hugging the walls in twos and threes. Wandering onto the stage unaccompanied looking a little like a skinny jeaned Jesus, there’s a gentleness to every moment of Gracie’s set, breaking up his soft, yearning songs with gawky charm. Also to keep asking for more reverb – a clear disciple of Jeff Buckley, his music works towards the haunting echo of a lone man in an empty church. It’s an effect he achieves impressively and a comparison he merits, a real shame more people weren’t there to see him do it though you get the feeling it wont be long before he’s got people crowding out rooms all for himself.
His set wraps up and the rest of the crowd materialises, filling the room from wall to wall in a matter of minutes and chattering excitedly until they’re ushered into silence by the ponderous sounds pouring out from the keyboard player sitting alone upon the stage. Kiwanuka soon appears beside him and begins dragging out long, bending electric chords in a way that feels like it’s about to summon the end credits of a less than happy movie – a Western or a Noir where the problems aren’t solved, the hero is killed for his convictions and the camera pans out one last time to a world carrying on just the same. The intro to ‘Love & Hate’ sets the tone of his new album, one permeated with pain and regret, and a sense of more to come.
Kiwanuka’s second is a much darker and more difficult album than the one that preceded it, both musically, with eight and nine minute tracks that sprawl off into winding guitar solos and gospel-ish refrains, and tonally. While the hurt in Kiwanuka’s powerful voice has always been a prominent factor in his music, on his new album it sounds genuinely scarred. On songs like ‘Black Man in a White Man’s World’, the breakout track from the new album and one which the audience is immediately swept into by the hand-clap rhythm that drives it, the effect it is kind of mesmerising as Kiwanuka draws on deeper wells than he’s ever gone to before and comes up with something really special.
In other moments, though, it falls away a little and the elongated solos just feel long, the slow grooves just slow. It’s at these times that the night benefits from his older material, allowing him to mellow things out and let the room relax for a while in the warmer tones of his previous album. Altogether it’s a good gig based around a good album from a man who you can’t help but feel might be a lot better than good. Michael Kiwanuka has the pure, soulful vocal power to arrest an audience all by himself but it’s a power that, after two albums and a four year disappearance in between, he still doesn’t seem quite sure how to use. But he’s getting closer, and becoming more impressive with every step he takes towards it.