Janelle Monáe: Electrifying [Tempe Marquee Theater Recap]


This woman is one of a kind. The Electric Lady, the title of Janelle Monáe’s latest album, is no joke. Electricity surges through her on stage: in the manic dance moves that channel James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Elvis; in the instant, interactive connection she makes with her audience; in her powerful, silky smooth singing; in that smile… in that Stage Presence. Wow!

Yeah, Janelle owned the stage last night for a good hour and 45 minutes at the Marquee Theater in Tempe – my first, and definitely not my last time, seeing her live. A truly great performer is backed by a top notch, talented backing band, and Janelle brought one along: a powerful nine piece pop/soul/rock/funk outfit consisting of two backup singers, two horns, a drummer, a percussionist, guitarist, bassist, and keyboardist. Janelle and her band had the crowd, a couple thousand strong, buzzing from the start. It was the kind of eclectic crowd you’d see at a Prince show – black, white, young, old, gay, straight (“black, white, Puerto Rican everybody just a freakin’ good time..”as Prince once sang).

You just can’t pigeonhole Janelle into a category. It’s not straight R&B, soul (or neosoul) or pop/rock. It’s a grab bag of all of these styles and influences. The supercharged pop of  “Dance Apocalyptic,” one of my favorites, made an early appearance, along with the down tempo R&B of  “Give Em What They Love” and the straight ahead funk of “Q.U.E.E.N”.  She ripped through “Tightrope” (from her great debut full-length, The ArchAndroid), along with a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

The real magic, the full-circle realization that you’re seeing someone truly special, came during the four song encore. After coming back out to smooth out the crowd with “Primetime” (a ballad she sings with Miguel on Electric Lady), she launched into Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” which I first saw her perform during the 2010 BET Awards tribute to Prince (which you should watch here). If there’s any performer who’s fully qualified to cover the tune, it’s Janelle Monáe, with her manic intensity.

And then came the highlight of the night for me and I’m sure most of the crowd: “Come Alive (War of the Roses).” The song, about 3 and a half minutes long on the ArchAndroid album, turned into a 10-15 minute clapping & dancing & shaking interactive workout. At one point as the band broke it down, Janelle motioned everyone to get down low, and damned if she didn’t have almost the whole crowd in the room crouching down low for a good three minutes (give or take a few too-cool-for-school audience members, who received jokingly glaring looks from her). There was the interactive call and response between Janelle and the crowd. There were the high energy band solos, as each of them got a chance to showcase their talents for 20 seconds or so… and then there was Janelle, finally jumping out into the crowd, surfing her way a good twenty feet in (see the pic above)…

It was one of those live music moments every fan hopes for: when you say goodbye to reality for a few minutes and lose yourself in the moment. A deep connection with a performer that, when it’s all over, you realize you’re standing there with a huge smile plastered across your face.

There are very few live performers who can channel into that space and establish that core connection with the audience. I’m lucky to say I’ve returned to see Prince and Springsteen do that to me more than two dozen times…

Janelle Monáe has that magic too. I saw it last night.


BET’s Tribute to Prince: Janelle Monae, Esparanza Spalding, Alicia Keys, Patti LaBelle

This past Sunday, Prince was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 10th annual BET Awards. Prior to the presentation, four of his favorite ladies took to the stage to pay tribute to His Purpleness, and let me tell you, this was no half-ass tribute. The performers were reportedly hand picked by Prince: Janelle Monae, Esperanza Spalding, Alicia Keys, and Patti Labelle – and they all killed. Let’s take a look…

Janelle Monae – quirky, unconventional, and flat out weird (in the good sense of the word) – chose the perfect song to match her style and to kick off the festivities: “Let’s Go Crazy”. Watching her perform made me slap myself for missing her when she stopped through town last week with Erykah Badu. I love the way she writhes and slides and pops and twists (aka her flavor of dancing). And to top it all off, she’s carried off the stage after the tune. Prince seemed to dig it, didn’t he? So did I.

Esperanza Spalding was next, stepping to the mic with her stand-up electric bass, and launched into the classic from side 3 of Sign ‘o’ the Times, “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” It sounds like they used the original studio intro, sans Prince’s “oooo’s”. I wonder if Prince provided the backing track? Top notch performance of one of my favorite Prince tunes.

Next up was Alicia Keys with another Sign ‘o’ the Times standout: “Adore”. I have NEVER been more attracted to Ms. Alicia Keys than during this performance. It may have something to do with kicking off her heels and crawling barefoot on top of her piano and doing serious lusty justice to the song. She stayed pretty true to the nuances of Prince’s vocal delivery too – though she couldn’t hit some of those falsettos where Prince is up in the stratosphere like only Prince can do. Outstanding stuff from Alicia Keys. Yum yum yum.

To top off the tribute, Patti LaBelle emerged for “Purple Rain” (which Trey Songz had segued into briefly during his performance a few minutes earlier). Patti was on fire. She was having some issues with moving around in her heels, so off they came. She kicked one toward Prince, who swiftly grabbed it up. Patti’s voice was in top form, and was letting loose after her first and only verse. It was a great finale, and Prince was clearly moved, as you’ll see.

Since 1984, for better or worse, through good times and bad, I’ve always loved this man’s music. It was a treat to see him honored like this, and a treat to watch him enjoy and be emotionally affected by these performances.

Nicely done, ladies, nicely done.