Michael Kiwanuka and Emeli Sande, Xoyo, London (4/5, 2/5)


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The Independent Culture

The two new main contenders for the British soul crown faced off for a sort of Warble in Shoreditch.

On the undercard was wide-eyed Michael Kiwanuka, a 23-year-old Spurs supporter from Muswell Hill and winner of the BBC’s Sound of 2012. Top of the bill was the quiff-sporting Emeli Sande, a 24-year-old former medical student from Aberdeenshire, and winner of the Brits Critics’ Choice award for 2012. Both are accomplished performers, but it’s no contest really. It’s a tad unjust to compare them so harshly, but tonight Kiwanuka is by far the more stimulating prospect.

Sande, a favourite of Simon Cowell’s and a songwriter for the likes of Cher Lloyd and Susan Boyle, is a slick and polished act, but her material – which deals mainly in heartbreak, mutual understanding and the prospect of world peace – wouldn’t look out of place on the dismal, soul-sapping X-Factor. It lacks depth and spice, and most of the songs, in the words of Midge Ure, “mean nothing to me”. Kiwanuka, on the other hand, feels fresh, gritty and, well, soulful. That isn’t to say he’s an original, his influences are obvious – Bill Withers, Richie Havens, even the great Otis Redding – but his songs have a crispness and vitality to them, and they’re eminently hummable.

Kiwanuka unassumingly arrives on the small stage with his bass player and instantly silences the hubbub with his lilting opening number, “I’ll Get Along”. It’s followed by the spiritual anthem “I’m Getting Ready”, where he informs us “Oh Lord, I’m getting to ready to believe”. And belief is a recurrent theme, repeated in his other gorgeous, flute-infused single “Tell Me a Tale”, where he gently demands “Give me a sound that I won’t refuse/ Tell me a story that I can read/ Tell me a story that I can believe”. It’s obvious in his brief, seven-song set that Kiwanuka is steeped in folk and soul traditions – Bobby Womack, The Allman Brothers, Ryan Adams, even Randy Newman come to mind – and he finishes exquisitely with the Bill Withers rarity “I Don’t Know”.

Sande’s arrival is more ostentatious, her band more knowing (lots of eyes-closed earnestness) and the set is riddled with yodelling histrionics, which very much appeal to the karaoke crowd. However there are highlights in this generous set, namely the rousing, gospel-infused “Next to Me” and “My Kind of Love”.  

At one point Sande tritely informs us that if we “reach out” we’ll “make it” before blaring out another lifeless soul number. Sande will, no doubt, “make it” and sell by the bucket-load, but bet your soul collection on Kiwanuka being around for longer.