Michael Kiwanuka at the Fillmore, by Robert Alleyne
Michael Kiwanuka (photo: Robert Alleyne)

I first saw Michael Kiwanuka perform his gritty take on soul music in the small upstairs room at a pub in Angel, London. He played solo, with an out-of-tune guitar, at The Old Queen’s Head, and captivated the room. Such was his stature at the time he could be found hanging out before the show, looking slightly nervous inside the venue, wondering if the tiny Victorian era room would fill out (it did). Jake Bugg opened for him on a warm, late summer’s evening in London. A few months later, the same reserved, Bill Withers-loving singer would go on to win the BBC Sound of 2012 award.

Fast-forward to five years and two critically-acclaimed albums later, and he stepped out humbly to meet a sold-out crowd inside the historic San Francisco venue that resides at 1805 Geary. Kiwanuka greeted a buzzing Fillmore with a bold rendition of “Cold Little Heart,” the ambitious opening track of his critically acclaimed sophomore album Love & Hate. He did not shy away from the instrumental opening, and the performance was as gutsy as it sounded on record, going from a lone piano to bold rock-influenced soul record.

Kiwanuka worked with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton on Love & Hate, and the pair developed music with a more distinct edge than the much gentler sound his debut album, Home Again. During a live session with British music magazine NME, he mentioned his influences were, “classic ’60s and ’70s British guitar bands like The Who and Pink Floyd, as well as by a lot of soul music, particularly songs like ‘Walk On By’ by Isaac Hayes.” It shows as the album has a nostalgic, retro feel as he fuses rock and soul seamlessly.

Michael Kiwanuka at The Fillmore, by Robert Alleyne

Four songs in and that retro sound nearly took the roof off the Fillmore with “Black Man In A White World.” The spiritual hand-clapping was mixed with a funky guitar sound to make the song feel like it had been plucked from an early ’70s blaxploitation movie. Just like “Cold Little Heart” to open, he ramped things up for a romp of a performance which the audience lapped up with glee.

During the concert, Kiwanuka only flirted with songs from his debut album. When he did, he performed them with a gentle sensitivity. “Getting Ready” did nothing to betray the original record as his sweetly coarse voice sprinkled over the soft and warm instrumentation. Rest also offered an opportunity to strip things back with both songs together serving as an interlude his recent work.

Cloves at The Fillmore, by Robert Alleyne

Australian singer-songwriter Cloves opened the night with a set which also fused genres. Pop and soul merged in a voice which at times felt modeled on the late Amy Winehouse.  She stretched out her notes over songs which were full of reverb soaked, yet sultry guitars. Her new single, California Numb was an opportunity to add a kick to a pleasing opening set.

As Kiwanuka’s set reached its climax, he mentioned how much he’d been looking forward to playing in San Francisco and the Fillmore. Indeed, many of the audience had also been eagerly waiting the show, after he had to cancel his earlier date due to a bout of tonsillitis. He ended his main set with an expansive rendition of “Father’s Child,” in which guitars gloriously wailed, and as a few strong puffs of reefer smoke from the audience filled the air, he worked his way into the beautiful “Final Frame.” The main set ended just as the show had started, with a lone piano gently playing.

It was little surprise that the feet started stomping soon after he left the stage for an encore of “Home Again” and “Love & Hate.” Michael Kiwanuka’s performance was brave and exciting, an example of what can happen when someone decides to push the boundaries instead of settling for a safer, more generic sound. Love & Hate is an album that deserves all the plaudits it has received so far, and Michael Kiwanuka has crafted a live performance that matches the uniqueness and ambition of the album at every turn.