First published on 27 May 2012. Updated on 27 May 2012.
If you’d come to the Opera House Concert Hall on Saturday night without prior knowledge of what a ‘Janelle Monáe’ was, we’d forgive you for being a touch perplexed. The tiny star with the bouffant hair and the perma-tux calls herself an Android. Her hype man promises the audience an “emotion picture”. And programmes for the concert – which bore the delightfully oddball title, ‘Janelle Monáe and the Archandroid Orchestra’ – listed not just the members of Miss Monáe’s band, but a list of ten “Droid Commandments”. Our favourite of these: “...that children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with wings. The Wondaland Arts Society will not be held liable for this phenomenon or be held responsible for parenting or providing for your flying children!”
Needless to say, Monáe’s concert is an experience.
The hype has it that Kansas-born Monáe is one of the most exciting young pop-R’n’b-folk’-rock-glam-funk artists to come out of America in years. She’s certainly among the most interesting. Her debut LP, The ArchAndroid, had critics in raptures, a concept disc that saw Monáe’s alter ego, the android Cindi Mayweather, on the run in Metropolis after falling in love with a human. The sci-fi intrigue was backed up with great material: it was a smashing record with some ridiculously good tunes – best-known track ‘Tightrope’ is a hugely danceable celebration of horns that found itself on a number of ‘best song’ lists that year. And really, it was only the tip of the iceberg.
For her first live show in Australia, Monáe put the heavy emphasis on eccentricity. Dressed in a signature mix of tuxes – black jackets, white jackets, the occasional cape – she belted out tracks from the ArchAndroid
with a level of almost possessed performance; her James Brown crazy leg was working overtime. Men in masks stalked stealthily along the stage, creeping up on her – at one point she gunned them down with her hands contorted into little pistols. The set followed the album order pretty closely, opening with ‘Dance or Die’ – a build-and-explode song that ripped the audience’s arses off their chairs – though Monáe saved mid-album songs ‘Tightrop’ and ‘Cold War’ for a way-too-soon finale (less than an hour in). Fortunately a huge encore brought the night’s best moment: a drawn-out take on her bassy ‘Rock Lobster’-like track, ‘Come Alive’.
Monáe’s got some pretty huge pipes, a point that can often get lost in all the Philip K Dick-ness of her persona. On Saturday, it was occasionally lost in the masses of sound exploding from her orchestra. No song was less than intensely danceable and a damn-good-time, but we would have liked to hear Monáe break through more clearly on certain tunes. As if aware of what we were thinking – is that an android thing? – she did slow down the show at one point to sing a sweet-and-soft-strong-and-pitch-perfect cover of ‘Smile’ that would not have seemed out of place on an American Idol
finale. It was flawless. As was a cover of ‘I Want You Back’ – her voice is very
young Michael, and she can moonwalk too.
For the most part, the audience ate up this loud, funky and weird concoction. But your reviewer did notice a few… let’s just say “more senior” members of the audience to his left and right flee at around the halfway point (whether bizarre-d out by Monáe or my white-boy hand-clap dancing, I’m not sure).
Monáe is an acquired taste. And while she works her ass off upstage – a tendril of her seemingly immovable up-do is flopping down by the side of her face at show’s end – she doesn’t do a lot to ingratiate herself to the crowd in terms of banter and between-track talk. No “I love this town”. No “It’s such an honour to be playing in the Sydney Opera House”. No jokes. It might put some off; it is
a little impersonal. But I like the approach for its lack of pretense, it’s lack of BS. And if it’s a little robotic, well, I’m thinking that’s the very point.
Even if we didn’t perhaps adhere to droid commandment number nine – “By shows end you must transform” – those who stayed around for the whole set had a downright weird and pretty awesome night at the Opera House.
Janelle Monae and the ArchAndroid Orchestra played the Opera House for Vivid LIVE Sat May 26.