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Michael Kiwanuka, Barfly, London (4/5)


It is rare for any artist performing in rowdy Camden to get reasonable concentration, but when Michael Kiwanuka plays quietly, you can rattle the change in your pocket as percussion.

The solo artist whose folksy blues has been compared to Bill Withers has been shortlisted for the BBC’s feared Sound of 2012 (see what happened to previous candidates Mona and Clare Maguire), but on this showing he should survive the attention.

He has emerged from the Communion label that began life as a west London club night linked to Mumford & Sons, now promoting gigs in the US and licensing acts to major labels, Kiwanuka among them. Two EPs in the past few months, with a third, Home Again, set to drop in the new year, reveal an understated sound, far from the full-throated attack we are used to with retro-soul - even from Adele, whom this newcomer has supported.

Now, though, Kiwanuka has adopted a six-piece band that is fleshing out his material and taking it in a country-soul direction. ‘I’ll Get Along’ has all the rootsy feel of The Band’s proto-Americana, while the singer’s calling card, ‘Tell Me A Tale’, puffs out its chest, buoyed by a lithe funky rhythm and an indulgent prog-jazz solo from the flautist, who otherwise lends proceedings a more pastoral air. It is reminiscent of cult artist Terry Callier, while elsewhere Kiwanuka dips into stark, primitive blues and shuffling jazz beats.

By rights, there ought to be a hazy seventies fug about proceedings, yet Kiwanuka’s obvious love for his influences ensures he rises above them. An honest simplicity in his writing gives these lyrics a winning clarity, notably on the gentle feeling of loss in the title track to his forthcoming EP, though also on admissions of tender yearning and even a spiritual bent to ‘I’m Getting Ready’. These sentiments he delivers with a voice that is gravelly, but otherwise unadorned.

Unused to headlining, Kiwanuka gabbles between songs, explaining how he was so scared when he debuted a song on Later… With Jools Holland. “I realise now I don’t have a heart problem,” he ruefully admits. Wearing his influences openly, he closes his set with a Withers obscurity, ‘I Don’t Know’, encouraging the audience to join in on its straightforward chorus. By then, no-one is playing spot the reference. Kiwanuka’s reference points may be venerable, but in his hands well worth unearthing.