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.