On Wednesday night I went to see Janelle Monae, who is on tour with Bruno Mars and this other supporting band called, improbably, Mayer Hawthorne and the County. Since she wasn't the headliner and I was determined not to miss a second of her set, we got there right at the 7:30 start time and caught all of the Mayer Hawthorne set as well. He was great. The band was tight, and the whole thing had a Hall and Oates vibe that was completely confirmed when they broke into a rendition of "You Make My Dreams Come True."
Here's how they do:
So that's always cool, when the supporting band that you've never heard of makes you want to hit the computron and buy some mp3s.
Bruno Mars, who I'd literally never heard before, was the headliner. He's quite a talented dude who is not pushing the envelope at all, despite having some vocal and guitar chops, and shit, why should he push the envelope? He's ADORED and probably making a bunch of money. He was adorable and charming and while I don't want to say that he was calculated, it was clear that everything he did was designed to elicit a response from the audience. I have never been to concert like that before--one where every dramatic pause results in a wave of screams and the sound of thousands of panties dropping. It was pretty cute to see all the teens and tweens singing every word of every song to each other, but really the set was just moderately entertaining.
But Monae, let's talk about Monae. I may have mentioned previously that The ArchAndroid was one of my top albums last year, if not the tippy-top. "Tightrope" should have been the "Hey Ya!" of 2010, but considering I don't pay that much attention to mainstream music (I don't even know what qualifies as mainstream anymore), I don't know all the reasons why "Tightrope" didn't blow right the hell up. It has some of the same genre-straddling qualities as "Hey Ya!" and the same undercurrent of darkness ("If what they say is 'nothing lasts forever' then what makes love the exception? So why oh why are we so in denial when we know we're not happy here?" Etc.) despite being a dance anthem. In fact, everything on The ArchAndroid has this quality. It reminds me of Gnarls Barkley in that way: The Odd Couple, especially, was dark and existential. Someone get Dangermouse in a studio with Janelle Monae. I would love to hear that.
I'd like to be able to paint the stage picture for you in a way that isn't boring, but it was her trademark minimal white and black. She had the whole stage and backdrop covered in white, and the band was playing white instruments, and there was an electrified string quartet, and backup singers wearing black and white. She and the band were rocking the white shirt and tie and black pants. There were also cloaks, capes, hats, bird masks, and dancers in black unitards. At one point she painted an entire picture--like literally, with paint--while singing (and wearing a cloak). It was cool.
The only time anyone specifically addressed the audience was right at the beginning, when one of her crew came out and theatrically introduced her over the strains of the overture from the album. I mention this only because in contrast to the other two acts on this tour, Janelle Monae was not trying to work the crowd. She was putting on a show. I don't mean to say that she was cold, or disengaged, or not connecting with the audience--I was completely gripped. I just mean that she's got an overarching concept for the show that is well-defined, that involves everyone onstage, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for extemporizing, just the way you wouldn't expect to see an actor go off-script during a performance of a play. That's how it felt. It was theatrical, and she never broke character. Like she has more in common with Lady Gaga than with anyone else around these days, except that she's an exponentially better singer. Such fantastic, wide-ranging vocals, and incredible energy and booty shaking.
I also think, incidentally, that she's a beautiful woman but she does not engage the male gaze, and that is likely one of the reasons she is not dominating the entertainment world right now. I don't think it's just the pompadour and tie, either.
In conclusion, get thee to a Janelle Monae show. I was so bummed to have missed her at First Ave last September, and I vow to see all her local shows from now on.