Janelle Monae is a superstar-in-waiting. She might not yet sell the same number of albums or downloads as the pop acts filling the charts, but her assured live performances and undeniable charisma make it seem like it's only a matter of time before America catches on to the vibrant soul and R&B songstress.
That charisma was on full display Sunday night at Red Butte Garden--as was the fact Utah hasn't quite caught on to Monae, considering there was more space to move around than most shows at the 3,000-person venue. The fact it wasn't a sell-out didn't deter Monae and the dozen or so musicians, singers and hype men on stage from getting the entire audience on its collective feet for a show full of epic performances from her still-brief career.
The black-and-white "uniforms" Monae and her band wear made for a striking visual, even as the show started in sunlight, and they delivered a show the likes of which I can't recall ever seeing at the lush amphitheater. A rock-solid band, synchronized dance steps and some theatrical asides all blended with Monae's sound incorporating old-school soul and funk with futuristic R&B to make for a show sure to be talked about for a while for those in attendance.
Monae hit the stage like Hannibal Lecter, wheeled out on a cart and strapped into a straightjacket as the sounds of "Suite IV Electric Overture" filled the air. She burst out of her constraints to take the mic for a boisterous "Given' Em What They Love," a powerful, slinky tune from Monae's 2013 release, The Electric Lady.
Much of the set came from The Electric Lady, including the incredibly energetic Dance Apocalyptic early on. Monae dedicated "Q.U.E.E.N." to "all the queens here tonight" (perhaps a nod to the PRIDE weekend celebrants in attendance?), and the title track was turned into an audience singalong despite many folks' unfamiliarity with her music. Between those new songs, she dropped the noirish "Sincerely, Jane," a horn-blasted burner from her first release Metropolis: Suite I The Chase, from 2007.
Around midway through the show, Monae started paying tribute to some of her influences, mixing in stellar cover songs with some of her own biggest hits. A medley of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and "ABC" got the crowd riled and dancing frenetically, and she followed it up with "Heroes" by her brother in alien androgyny David Bowie, dedicating the song to "anyone who's ever been bullied."
She introduced one of her biggest hits, "Cold War," with a speech about how "we're all fighting for love, peace, justice and freedom," and Monae shut down the main set with her excellent banger "Tightrope."
Monae's encore lived up to the rest of the show, starting with what was basically the only ballad of the night, "Prime Time." After a show full of high-energy dancing, searing guitar solos, heavy percussion and blaring horn parts, the focus on simply Monae's crystal-clear voice was a welcome change-up, and proof that she doesn't have to rely on the huge band and theatrics to get over. She is fully capable of sitting on stage on a stool and mesmerizing with her voice, and "Prime Time" showed that.
Of course, I'm glad she prefers a big show, because that includes her killer cover of Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" that came next, a winning nod to one of her most obvious influences and a collaborator on Monae's latest album. A couple more songs, including "Come Alive" and Monae leading her band through samples of sounds from different cities--"Memphis! New York! Augusta, Georgia!"--and Monae had successfully heated up what was a damn chilly night on the hillside.
It was deeply satisfying as a fan who had seen Monae a couple times previous to Sunday night. I can only imagine she made some new converts with what was a highly entertaining show--and the kind of gig you don't see every day in Utah.