There is a certain phenotype of gig-goer whose sole mission is to unearth the Next Big Thing. They dream of being able to bore people shitless with future anecdotes along the lines of “U2? Yeah, saw them back in 1957 at The Slaughtered Testicle in Little Boghampton. There were only three of us at the gig, if you include bartender. And the bartender’s dog. But, even that night, I could tell they were gonna be huge.”
Unfortunately, as is often the way, the reality of The Search is far from glamorous. It is about traipsing around the city of your choice, attending an endless number of gigs in the back room of dodgy boozers or fleapit clubs with bad sound, bad beer, even worse sanitation and sightlines ruined by some mysterious 12-foot tall geezer who always stands in front of the stage and goes by the name of ‘Pillar’. It is always a Sunday or a Monday evening and it is always, always raining.
We stand at these gigs, watching earnest young folk in their skinny jeans and artfully-grown facial hair, coaxing their guitars to belch out whatever sub-genre of rock they (or we) are into that week. We squeeze our eyes tight and try and imagine that we are hearing the visionary deconstruction of The Velvet Underground or the excitement of The Libertines. Usually – no, almost always – we are not. It’s a numbers game – if we go to a hundred of these gigs, then the laws of statistical probability suggest we will, by chance, have witnessed a band which may, in the future, headline a boutique festival we have never heard of. But that’s a lot of rain, a whole heap of Sundays and a lot of flat lager.
So, thank buggery it doesn’t have to be like this all the time. Last December, Janelle Monáe played a pant-wettingly incredible gig at Manchester’s 500-capacity Academy Two. She arrived fully-formed; part space cadet, part James Brown and part Prince. Her backing band looked like they were having the night of their lives and the shitty student venue was transformed into a giant cosmic party. Make no mistake, Janelle Monáe is a star.
Fast-forward three months and Monáe is back in Manchester and promoted to Academy One. Having lost the initial shock and awe of that first experience of seeing her perform live, the question for the night seems to be whether she can repeat her previous heroics. The hall is depressingly half full (but it is Monday and there must be at least three people at a gig at The Slaughtered Testicle) and the enlightened folk who have braved a pleasant later winter evening seem well up for it.
And ‘it’ is quit astonishing. On a bigger stage, Janelle Monáe and her dancers, mime artists and manic backing band deliver a set which is so euphoric, so fucking amazingly perfect in its execution and style, that it becomes quite tedious to repeatedly scrape one’s jaw from the floor. Take the first four songs as a case in point. The first three merge into one another; a caped (quite why, we don’t know) Monáe machine-gun raps the staccato ‘Dance Or Die’ before launching into a mighty, pumped-up version of the skat-soul of ‘Faster’. Third up is the dream-pop ‘Locked Inside’, which is a happy a song about being in an abusive relationship as you are ever likely to hear, and includes a dancer dressed as a nun (nope, not a clue as to why). The band then retreats and Monáe, along with her guitarist delivers a note-perfect version of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’. The song’s sentiment would melt the iciest of hearts and when she breathes out on the last note, there is almost a sense that her latent talent is taking the piss. It’s not fair to be that good in only four songs.
A lot has been written about Monáe’s influences and musical reference points. Live, she sheds some of those layers as being merely journalistic posturing. The Ziggy Stardust connection is perhaps a red herring. Okay, the set starts with a video screening of Monáe spouting off about the android concept bollocks of The ArchAndroid. Her video projections feature scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. However, make no mistake, tonight’s show is a shit-hot soul review, with Monáe channeling the spirit of James Brown and Sly Stone. The natural high of ‘Wondaland’ is the sort of astral funk that seems out of place on Planet Earth as the hall is filled with tickertape. On ‘Mushrooms & Roses’ she paints a (yet again, laughably poor) picture on an easel amidst a swirl of psychedelic guitars.
And then – somewhat implausibly – she ramps it up another notch. We get both barrels of an anthemic ‘Cold War’ before she asks the crowd if we are ready for the ‘Tightrope’? We are – and she freaking slays us with more tickertape, funkiness turned up to 11 and images of James Brown and Mohammed Ali on the video screen. For an encore, Monáe morphs a psychotic version of ‘Come Alive’ into a giant call-and-response game, before requesting we all sit down, as the show builds to the climax of an out-of-control jam. It’s pretty near being perfect. And then she has gone, without a single word of banter with the crowd, but having given more of herself in 80 minutes than any number of indie-rock bands would in a career.
As at her previous Manchester gig, Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ is played as the crowd shuffles home. Hendrix, James Brown, Mohammed Ali – Janelle Monáe knows her place and her sights are set on greatness. Me? I’ll be back at The Slaughtered Testicle next week.