Janelle Monae - Cargo London
Jay-Z may well have been playing Ally Pally and Alphabeat mixing with the poppers down at Heaven but the hottest show in town on a cold November evening was to be found at Cargo where the first All The Rage London event was being held.
This was the first in a potential series of shows created by SMJ Entertainment, held in cities around the world and supporting a different charity each time through music, arts and culture: "Inspiring, educating and helping to provide direct support to people who need it most". The London launch event was helping to raise funds for UK charity Resources For Autism.
I was pulled in the evening's direction due to the appearance of Kansas City's Janelle Monae. I was lucky enough to watch a performance from Janelle on my annual visit to Austin's South By South West music event back in March. Intrigued by her picture on the front of the daily SXSW free newspaper I sought out one of her sets on the final day of my USA trip. My Austin encounter with Janelle delivered my favorite moment of SXSW, with Miss Monae's appearance producing an unforgettable showcase.
Janelle released mini album Metropolis Suite I - The Chase Stateside last year, with suites II and III to follow in 2010. She's due a big push from her record company in the USA next year due to the releases and there's talk of potential UK dates in the pipeline too. I knew I couldn't wait that long to see her again if she was playing "on my doorstep" this year, so took the plunge and popped into Cargo for her performance.
All The Rage had produced an interesting line up for their launch show. A breakdancing display kicked off proceedings, followed by celebrity disc spinner - DJ Nikki Beatnik, joined onstage for a few tracks by rapper Statis.
US rappers Rich Hil and Boobonic were next in line, performing together. I put my hands up and honestly say that I had no idea who any of the artistes mentioned were while watching them as rap and dance music just isn't my thing. I have done my homework since the show though, checking each act's My Space page! That being said, I still had fun in the couple of hours spent before Janelle's appearance as the rap on offer was fairly light hearted in its delivery, with nary the mention of Uzi's and blood baths (though I may have heard the odd "hoe" sprinkled in the mix at some point!) An energetic MC kept the whole thing bubbling along nicely throughout the night, rapping along to some of DJ Nikki's tracks and urging the assembled Cargo patrons to dance and have fun!
There was a moment during the evening that brought a huge smile to my face. The MC was joined onstage by another rapper, with both lads enticing the audience to dance to one particular track. Virtually the whole of the predominately female crowd, at this point a few rows deep, faced away from the stage and performed the dance steps to the whole song as one, making me feel like I was on the set of Step Up 2 The Streets 5 or something of that nature! It may be a regular occurance at "Urban" clubs but you just don't see the likes down the Barfly or Water Rats!
Eventually it was time for Janelle's set. This was preluded by the strange appearance of Miss Monae's hooded lackey who proceeded to cover the stage floor in talcum powder, readying it for the Kansas Citians numerous dance moves that would wow the crowd for the set's duration.
I was slightly worried that I would be expecting too much from Janelle's performance. I was well aware that the esteem I felt for her after her SXSW appearance may have been misplaced due to "holiday euphoria", especially after four days with very little sleep or food and a free bar before her showcase! I was still looking forward to her taking the stage though and my anticipation increased when her bass player appeared, announcing her arrival, with the short opening track from her album "The March of the Wolfmasters" acting as her intro music.
Bounding onto the stage with relentless energy Janelle was unstoppable, delivering "Violet Stars Happy Hunting" with a series of spins, kicks, drops and the fanciest of footwork seen in a rock setting! It may not be true when she declares "I'm an alien from outer space" at one point in the song but there is something otherworldly about her. I go to a lot of gigs and have been entertained by numerous performers but it's very very rare when I see someone who I believe possess actual "star quality" or even the X Factor, though she has nothing in common with the handful of karaoke wannabees parading themselves on my TV on a Saturday night. Mind you, she may share a hair stylist with the twins...
Janelle's music is a futuristic take on Urban Soul but sung with a timeless quality, with her website bio declaring "It's like having Judy Garland and Lauryn Hill team up on a record". She puts me in mind of two of my favorite creative forces in recent years - Swedish Pop pixie Robyn and the gorgeous Lady Gaga.
Although there's no Janelle product available yet on these shores there were plenty of fans in the audience with at least all the front row singing along to tracks pulled from her mini album, including the second song of the night "Many Moons". I doubt at this point in the proceedings that there was anyone in the house not completely blown away by what was on offer as it was so exhilarating. Janelle's Vaudevillian approach to her live show was all very well but could she cut the mustard without the theatrics?
Well the proof of the pudding is in the eating and Janelle produced a glorious stripped down version of the standard "Smile", with only her funky guitarist backing, her voice the main focal point for the song's rendition. She did stand on the top of a very tall stool to deliver the song but I bet that's just so the people at the back could see her!
It was business as usual after "Smile" with "Sincerely Jane" and some unreleased material up next but just when you thought you had seen it all Janelle managed to pull something else out of the bag. I had noticed a few little paint pots nestled at the back of the stage throughout the evening so was curious to see them put to use. With brush in hand and the hooded henchman holding the canvas Janelle got to work, dabbing away, eventually producing a nude while singing about the woman in question. Janelle had launched her jacket into the audience earlier in the set and she must have been in a very giving mood that evening as she proceeded to project the still very wet canvas over our heads, whirling to the back of the room. As I was front row I didn't see the carnage or requests for dry cleaning costs!
Janelle upped the ante again for "Tightrope", with more delicious dancing and and a glorious stage dive towards the end of the song. She may have been looking for her coat and picture but returned to the stage empty handed to complete her set, delivering one last number, ending her performance lying on the ground, a spent force.
This was without a doubt the best gig I've witnessed all year, with very little coming even close. My earlier fears were completely unfounded and I wasn't the only one in the house feeling the same way as there were numerous people raving about the set on my way out of the building. I'm a big fan of seeing gigs in intimate settings so I know that seeing Janelle again in a slightly bigger environment may mean that the show may lose a tiny bit of its sparkle but after playing enormodomes with No Doubt earlier in the year I'm sure she's got what it takes to deliver the goods on a bigger stage too.
Visit You Tube to view a video of Smile from Cargo and also the Many Moons short as it's a perfect introduction to Miss Janelle Monae.
For more information on Resources For Autism please visit their Website